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Neo-Confucian philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G004-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 26, 2019, from

Article Summary

Chinese neo-Confucian philosophy, or ‘neo-Confucianism’, is a term which refers to a wide variety of substantially different Chinese thinkers from the Song dynasty (960–1279) through the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). In at least one respect the term is misleading, for unlike Neoplatonists, most neo-Confucians saw themselves as reviving, not revising, the earlier Confucian tradition. What united all these thinkers was a common allegiance to Confucius and his thought. Many of the central debates within the tradition concern the issue of who could claim to be Confucius’ legitimate heir.

Despite their shared dedication to Confucius’ legacy, a number of the central beliefs of neo-Confucians were unknown to Confucius and his early followers and appear to be at odds with early Confucian views. Many of these beliefs were part of a novel, elaborate and comprehensive metaphysical scheme linking human beings (as microcosm) to the universe (as macrocosm). Such cosmological theories provided a new ground for Confucian ethical claims and strengthened a tendency towards the mystical identification of the self with the universe. These changes also helped to transform the earlier Confucian concern with self-cultivation and steady moral improvement to a more dramatic quest for spiritual enlightenment, replete with a distinctly Confucian style of meditation.

One widely accepted account of the rise of neo-Confucianism sees it as a reaction on the part of Confucian scholars to the perceived dominance of Buddhist thought. On this view, Confucians had become complacent in the period between the end of the Han dynasty, in the early third century ad, to the beginnings of the neo-Confucian movement late in the ninth century. Fearing that their way of life was in peril, these later Confucians resolved to overcome their Buddhist competitors and revive their tradition. Purportedly, these later Confucians realized that in order to accomplish these goals they would need to develop and deploy an account of the Confucian tradition that could compete with and overcome the complex metaphysical schemes the Buddhists had used to argue against them. For these strategic reasons, early neo-Confucians focused their attention on texts like the Mengzi (Mencius), Daxue (Great Learning) and Zhongyong (Doctrine of the Mean) and began to evolve a version of Confucianism that was supported by the kind of comprehensive and complex metaphysical system described above.

A different account of the rise of neo-Confucianism can be given, however, in which the selection of certain texts and the development of new styles and practices of reasoning are not seen as self-conscious strategic borrowings from Buddhism and Daoism. Rather, these characteristic features of neo-Confucianism are consequences of the profound and pervasive effect that Buddhist and Daoist thought had exerted for centuries upon Chinese intellectuals. There was no organized or distinct group of thinkers who identified and thought of themselves as Confucians in the centuries immediately prior to the neo-Confucian revival. Rather, Chinese intellectuals had come to accept a wide range of philosophical ideas and spiritual practices as part and parcel of literati culture. When certain of these broadly read and eclectically trained individuals began looking back to the writings of early Confucian figures, they did so through the categories and with the concerns and approaches of their age. Their angle of vision had changed, and as a result they saw these earlier sources differently. This new orientation led them to elevate certain texts to canonical status; in some cases, these were texts that were unknown to the sages they claimed to follow. Moreover, these later Confucians developed particular aspects of the classical writings in ways that would have been unrecognizable to the founding figures of the tradition they so adamantly defended.

The great impetus for the revival of Confucianism came with a series of social and political crises that came to a head roughly in the middle of the eighth century. Under the dual pressures of internal rebellion and economic distress and external attack on a number of different fronts, Chinese intellectuals began to question their fundamental beliefs and practices. Rather than calling for reform or progress, such reflection led them back to their roots. Increasingly, they came to believe that the primary source of their troubles was that they had lost their Way. Like the foreign enemies who plagued them from without, they were being undermined by a foreign force from within: the non-Chinese religion of Buddhism and its spiritual cousin Daoism. These had led them to abandon the true source of their strength and former glory: the culture of classical China. Their course was clear. They must retrieve and revive the classical culture that was their very essence. In so doing they would replay the roles their most revered sages, Confucius and Mencius, had played in their own degenerate ages. This call to defend and promote ‘this culture’ served as the rallying point for the neo-Confucian movement.

Towards the end of the neo-Confucian period, Chinese Confucians themselves began to recognize the degree to which earlier neo-Confucians had incorporated beliefs and styles of reasoning that were alien to Confucius’ way of thinking, specifically ideas drawn from Buddhism and Daoism, into the tradition. A number of these Qing dynasty thinkers saw their task primarily in terms of purging the tradition of these foreign elements in an effort to reconstitute a purer form of Confucius’ original vision.

Citing this article:
Ivanhoe, Philip J.. Neo-Confucian philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G004-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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