Introduction-Confucian Humanism in Perspective

Professor Tu Weiming (杜维明) is one of famous names in the new Confucianism movement. He teaches at Harvard University, and is also currently the director of the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University. He wrote the following article recently. I have to say that I am becoming increasingly attracted to the teaching of Master Kung, and his modern day promoter, Tu Weiming.

Confucius and East Asian modernity ethic
By Tu Weiming (China Daily)

The assumption of the 1960s when the modernization theory in vogue at Harvard that the worldwide process of rationalization, defined in terms of industrialization, urbanization, Westernization and modernization, would wipe out cultural, institutional, structural, and ideational differences is no longer tenable.

Globalization is inevitably a process of homogenization. The conspicuous presence of English in any form of international discourse, the spread of fast food, United States-style entertainment, and youth culture are obvious examples. Yet the thesis of convergence, meaning that the rest of the world will eventually converge with the modern West, in particular the US, is at best an American dream.

In the 1980s, development economists and comparative sociologists advocated the thesis of reverse convergence occasioned by the so-called miracles of Japan and the Four Mini-Dragons (South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan and Hong Kong). “Asian values”, “network capitalism”, and “the Asia-Pacific Century” were advanced as alternatives to Western modernism.

Obviously, Asian business leaders can and should learn from the West. Actually, for more than 150 years, East Asian intellectuals have been devoted students of Western learning.

The first character in The Analects of Confucius is “learning” (xue). Learning to be human is a ceaseless process of self-realization. Understandably, among non-Western societies, East Asia has been most thorough in its commitment to Western learning. But the assumption that “the quest for wealth and power” was the primary motive of East Asian intellectuals to emulate the so-called “advanced techniques” of the West is misleading.

It was the Western civilization behind the gunboats and gunfire that truly impressed Confucian literati. For them, the West symbolized the effectiveness and efficiency of soldiers and traders rather than the institutions and underlying values that constituted the totality of the Western impact. The so-called Self-Strengthening Movement (1861-95), involving building of an industrial infrastructure and training generations of experts during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), could not have come about without the awareness that leaning from the West, which required a long-term national effort, was necessary for China’s survival.

As a result, there is affective deficiency in Western learning and cognitive deficiency in identifying with traditional China. In a deeper sense, the predicament of contemporary Chinese intellectuals also lies in their unquestioned commitment to a particular version of the Enlightenment of the modern West. They believe that secular humanism as exemplified by the French Revolution (1789-99), and its attendant positivism, utilitarianism, scientism, materialism and progressivism is the only path for China’s survival and progress.

But despite the prominence of the Enlightenment mentality among the Chinese scholarly discourse, the need for broadening its intellectual scope and deepening its ethical basis is obvious. As feminists, ecologists, communitarians and comparative religionists have said, the Enlightenment mentality is seriously flawed. Premised on anthropocentrism, instrumental rationality, Euro-centrism, male orientation and egoism, it is inadequate in providing symbolic resources for understanding religion, nature, community and cultural diversity.

There is an urgent need for a comprehensive and integrated humanistic vision, which is musical to religious voices and sensitive to ecological concerns. Can we broaden the intellectual scope and deepen the ethical basis of the Enlightenment mentality so that it can serve as a source of inspiration for the human community in dealing with the grave issues of poverty, unemployment, social disintegration and environmental degradation?

Admittedly, economic globalization is so overwhelming in shaping the discourse in international politics that cultural diversity pales in comparison in terms of power, wealth and influence. Yet culture matters.

The idea of the economic man who, as a rational animal, understands his self-interest and tries to maximize his profit in the free market adjudicated by law appears to be impoverished (and cannot be a source of inspiration) for leadership training in institutes of higher learning in North America.

The economic man certainly exhibits values such as rationality, liberty, legality and rights-consciousness. Yet values such as responsibility, civility, decency, sympathy, empathy, compassion and social solidarity are absent. It is no longer persuasive or adequate to characterize liberty, rationality, rule of law, and human rights and dignity of the individual as “universal” values. And justice, righteousness, sympathy, civility, responsibility and social solidarity have always been “Asian” values.

The time is ripe for a dialogue among civilizations that focuses on the core values necessary for human survival and progress. The philosophical enterprise to identify the “universal ethic” must be augmented by thick descriptions of paths of learning to be human. Civilizations do not clash. Only ignorance does. The danger of shared vulnerability as well as the hope of shared aspiration impels us to move beyond unilateralism in order to work toward a dialogical civilization.

In the age of reason, when the Enlightenment movement began to shape the Western mindset, leading thinkers such as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), Voltaire (1694-1778) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), took China as an important referent country and Confucianism as a significant referent culture. With an eye on the future, it is likely that the spirit of East Asian modernity imbued with Confucian characteristics will serve as a reference for public intellectuals in North America and Western Europe as well as for intellectuals elsewhere in the world.

His series of lectures on Moral Reasoning have been made available in the youtube.
2010 January 26, 2010
Week 1 (Tuesday): Introduction-Confucian Humanism in Perspective
Yao Xinzhongs Introduction to Confucianism


About kchew

an occasional culturalist
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