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Confucian philosophy, Chinese

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G003-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 23, 2018, from

Article Summary

Chinese Confucian philosophy is primarily a set of ethical ideas oriented toward practice. Characteristically, it stresses the traditional boundaries of ethical responsibility and dao, or the ideal of the good human life as a whole. It may be characterized as an ethics of virtue in the light of its conception of dao and de (virtue). Comprising the conceptual framework of Confucian ethics are notions of basic virtues such as ren (benevolence), yi (rightness, righteousness), and li (rites, propriety). There are also notions of dependent virtues such as filiality, loyalty, respectfulness and integrity. Basic virtues are considered fundamental, leading or action-guiding, cardinal and the most comprehensive. In the classic Confucian sense, ren pertains to affectionate concern for the well-being of fellows in one’s community. Notably, ren is often used in an extended sense by major Song and Ming Confucians as interchangeable with dao for the ideal of the universe as a moral community. Yi pertains to the sense of rightness, especially exercised in coping with changing circumstances of human life, those situations that fall outside the scope of li. Li focuses on rules of proper conduct, which have three functions: delimiting, supportive and ennobling. That is, the li define the boundaries of proper behaviour, provide opportunities for satisfying desires of moral agents within these boundaries, and encourage the development of noble characters which markedly embody cultural refinement and communal concerns. The li are the depository of insights of the Confucian tradition as a living ethical tradition. This tradition is subject to changing interpretation governed by the exercise of quan or the weighing of circumstances informed by the sense of rightness (yi).

However, the common Confucian appeal to historical events and paradigmatic individuals is criticized because of lack of understanding of the ethical uses of such a historical appeal. The pedagogical use stresses the study of the classics in terms of the standards of ren, yi and li. Learning, however, is not a mere acquisition of knowledge, but requires understanding and insight. Also, the companion study of paradigmatic individuals is important, not only because they point to models of emulation but also because they are, so to speak, exemplary personifications of the spirits of ren, yi and li. Moreover, they also function as reminders of moral learning and conduct that appeal especially to what is deemed in the real interest of the learner. The rhetorical use of the historical appeal is basically an appeal to plausible presumptions, or shared beliefs and trustworthiness. These presumptions are subject to further challenge, but they can be accepted as starting points in discourse. The elucidative use of historical appeal purports to clarify the relevance of the past for the present. Perhaps most important for argumentative discourse is the evaluative function of historical appeal. It focuses our knowledge and understanding of our present problematic situations as a basis for exerting the unexamined claims based on the past as a guidance for the present. Thus, both the elucidative and evaluative uses of historical appeal are critical and attentive to evidential grounding of ethical claims.

Because of its primary ethical orientation and its influence on traditional Chinese life and thought, Confucianism occupies a pre-eminent place in the history of Chinese philosophy. The core of Confucian thought lies in the teachings of Confucius (551–479 bc) contained in the Analects (Lunyu), along with the brilliant and divergent contributions of Mencius (372?–289 bc) and Xunzi (fl. 298–238 bc), as well as the Daxue (Great Learning) and the Zhongyong (Doctrine of the Mean), originally chapters in the Liji (Book of Rites). Significant and original developments, particularly along a quasi-metaphysical route, are to be found in the works of Zhou Dunyi (1017–73), Zhang Zai (1020–77), Cheng Hao (1032–85), Cheng Yi (1033–1107), Zhu Xi (1130–1200), Lu Xiangshan (1139–93), and Wang Yangming (1472–1529). Li Gou (1009–59), Wang Fuzhi (1619–92), and Dai Zhen (1723–77) have also made noteworthy contributions to the critical development of Confucian philosophy. In the twentieth century, the revitalization and transformation of Confucian philosophy has taken a new turn in response to Western philosophical traditions. Important advances have been made by Feng Youlan, Tang Junyi, Thomé H. Fang, and Mou Zongsan. Most of the recent works in critical reconstruction are marked by a self-conscious concern with analytic methodology and the relevance of existentialism, phenomenology, and hermeneutics. Still lacking is a comprehensive and systematic Confucian theory informed by both the history and the problems of Western philosophy.

Citing this article:
Cua, A.S.. Confucian philosophy, Chinese, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G003-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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