Confucianism and Critical Rationalism- 儒学与理性主义

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Source: Foreign Policy (2014).

Although Confucius describes himself as a preserver of culture and places significant emphasis on the importance of learning, since learning and devotion for sons are considered key aspects to maintaining the dao (道 – a teaching or skill formula that is key to achieving self-perfection and world transformation), there is no discussion on rationality or logical reasoning in any of the Confucian texts. Commentator A. C. Graham has noted that along with the absence of a theory of reasoning, Confucius generally puts a low premium on thinking when compared to learning. In the modern world, the relationship between thinking and learning are often associated with one another: to learn any new theory or concept, one has to be able to think. That is, to acquire knowledge by discussing, comparing, and contrasting to test how and whether the new information fits in line with already established theories and concepts. The difference between thinking and learning, Graham argues, occurs when we define learning as that involving acquiring knowledge by committing something to memory and being able to recite it when needed, whereas thinking is the act of questioning, testing, and criticising information before accepting it as acquired knowledge.

For Chi-Ming (2017), the Confucian emphasis on hierarchy and harmony in contrast to critical thinking and rationalism has promoted submission and conformity in Chinese society. A review of recent psychological research indicates that people in China are dominated by authority-minded ways of thinking, which means that they are more willing to accept people at a senior level as arbiters of truth or morality and are likely to adopt non-confrontational approaches to conflict resolution (Shi & Feng, 2010; Ng, 2010). As Hall and Ames (1995) put it, one would not expect to read in the works of a classical Chinese [Confucian] scholar anything like Aristotle’s statement, “I love my teacher, Plato, but I love truth more”, for such a declaration would be seen as a form of self-assertiveness which has the potential to threaten social harmony. This raises questions as to whether Confucianism is inherently opposed to critical rationalism or, as some scholars put forward, it entails it.

What is critical rationalism?

 Austrian-British philosopher and professor Karl Popper (1966) put forward a formula for defining critical rationalism as listening to critical arguments and learning from one’s mistakes. This involves admitting that you may be wrong, and that the other person may be right, and with effort to investigate, taking part in inquiry to get nearer to the truth by distinguishing between falsity and reality. Popper considers criticism, or the act of refuting evidence by testing information for contradictions and discrepancies, to be an important part of learning from one’s mistakes and getting nearer to the truth. Without it, one can fall into the trap of defending a mistaken belief and appealing to unsound arguments.

For example, accepting an argument simply because it is advanced by those in authority is erroneous as these arguments may not be related to the truth, or may be advanced by people who claim that they are authorities when they are not. By this standard, it is unacceptable if a teacher is mistaken in making the claim that Australia is part of Africa and the students unquestionably accept the teacher’s claim because he is in a position of authority. Likewise, pro athletes pushing for home loans are likely false authorities as consumers do not know if the athletes have used or use home loans at all, and it can be assumed that the athlete was successful without using the product in the first place. The importance of criticism here comes from the fact that power is inextricably linked to knowledge. Michel Foucault (1977) pointed out that throughout history, knowledge was intertwined with forms of power and domination. Those in power have the resources and influence to determine what is accepted knowledge to justify their positions of authority. In many cases, statements can be dismissed and not even considered not because they are thought to be false, but because it is not clear for those in power what it would mean for those statements to be considered true or false. One only has to look at the example of Galileo discovering that the earth revolves around the sun, and the Vatican’s response that saw him sentenced to indefinite imprisonment until his death in 1642, to see how power and knowledge interacted to restrict scientific discovery.

Although people in positions of authority can help make sense of vast and complex theories and evidence, as courtrooms continue to rely on psychologists and forensic authorities in trials, the perspectives put forward by these professionals should be taken as resources for understanding information, rather than as a final say on debated issues. Criticism, in this sense, can also be used to defend against the fallacy of democracy, which claims that popular ideas are necessarily right, and dogmatism, where one may be unwilling to consider an opponent’s argument because of the assumption that those who disagree with you are biased, while your beliefs remain objective and correct.

Critical rationalism has significant implications for politics and education. Politically, it is a rejection of authoritarianism and any form of governance that rejects freedom of thought and critical inquiry. The key concepts here are rational and reflective, since both suggest going beyond mere acceptance of what others say one should believe. It necessarily requires opposition and alternative viewpoints and is supportive of citizen engagement. In education, critical thinking is about developing intellectual and moral virtues, including epistemic humility (recognition that one’s views may be incorrect), sincerity in the formation of belief, open-mindedness, fairness, and autonomy in reasoning (see Kim, 2003). Without these aspects, reasoning can be easily distorted to support unwarranted conclusions.

How critical rationalism differs from Confucianism

 If Confucianism values learning and not thinking (and if the two can be implicitly contrasted as suggested), then it follows that Confucius’ philosophy is at odds with contemporary education and critical rationalism. Learning without thinking is likely to involve processes of blind accumulation of information and the memorization and retention of ideas. Without inquiry, this is likely to lead to the acceptance of false ideas, prejudice, and ideology that serves those in power. In chapter 1, book VII of the Analects, Confucius states that he is only a transmitter rather than an innovator, looking to antiquity to solve the problems of his day. The idea is that knowledge is accumulated from watching, listening to, and reading from past ideas that are believed to hold ancient wisdom that can be adapted and applied. Though Confucianism highlights specific virtues that should be transmitted, without thorough knowledge of past information and its contexts, the past can be simply accepted because it comes from unquestionable authority, making criticism impossible.

Furthermore, whereas critical rationalism seeks to establish democracy and rule of law, Confucianism does not necessarily uphold either a democratic society nor protect the freedom of people. The Confucian idea about the effectiveness of teaching and learning, as revealed in The Documents (Shang shu 尚書), which states that everyone can become a Yao, Shun or Yu (all are legendary model rulers in ancient China), reflects a preference towards the power of education over rationalism, and the development of an undemocratic government that is based on filiality, benevolence, and the ruling class. While critical rationalism argues that criticism is the best means of establishing truth, for Confucianism, criticism is at best seen as an effective way of realizing benevolence, which is considered the ultimate goal of learning and achieving harmony. The outcome of critical discussion here is not aimed towards truth, but stimulating conversation that leads to moral effectiveness, which requires one to always be loyal and trustworthy in discourse (Knoblock & Zhang, 1999).

 The view that Confucianism entails critical thinking

For many Confucian scholars, the discovery of things as a form of thinking and learning can be compatible with Confucius’ admiration of antiquity and does not necessarily involve uncritically accepting and holding on to past knowledge. Despite the many differences between the two schools of thought, Confucianism and critical rationalism do share some significant similarities in theory. For instance, in line with critical rationalist values, Confucianism values epistemic modesty, courtesy to opponents, and respect for critical inquiry, although forbidden subjects and tabooed names are not to be discussed (Knoblock & Zhang, 1999). The Xunzi states that problems should be solved by rational and impartial inquiry rather than with emotions since desires and aversions are considered to be flaws of the mind’s operation.

It should be noted that while the Confucian tendency to draw from the past is often criticised as being conservative, it can also be an effective way of establishing critical thought. An emphasis on the past reflects a concern for continuity that can be used to shape the future instead of seeking to retain the past unchanged. In Book III, Chapter 14 of the Analects, Confucius says that the Zhou dynasty was built on the successes of two previous ruling dynasties: “How splendid was its pattern! And we follow the Zhou.” The past is seen as a useful resource for teaching moral lessons, and any change should be enacted by reflecting on previous practices and traditions. Rather than attack all forms of old thought, as was done under Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution, critical thinking can align with examining past approaches.

Finally, a key aspect of Confucian living that resembles critical rationalism is the importance of communication in rational discussion. The concept of wisdom (zhi, 智) in Confucianism is associated with thinking and is linked to inquiry. The character 智 indicates not only the ‘mouth’ (kou, 口) and ‘saying’ (yue 曰), which highlights the importance of communication in accumulating knowledge, but also that of the ‘arrow’ (shi 矢), which is made up of the characters for ‘people’ (ren 人), suggesting that wisdom entails a community of inquirers instead of knowing on one’s own (Ames, 2011). The idea is that learning and thinking is a social process and while thinking can take place on one’s own, self-reflection is only one aspect of learning from one’s mistakes and getting nearer to the truth. In the Analects Book VI, chapter 27, Confucius notes that once a cultivated person studies broadly in patterns in line with li, “he will never turn his back on them”, which demonstrates that practising li involves promoting social communication and order to achieve truth, rationalism, and harmony.

Although Confucianism does not align perfectly with Popper’s modern conception of critical rationalism, the two schools of thought are not completely in opposition. Without dismissing the claims put forward by Hall and Ames (1987), which state that Confucianism prioritizes aesthetic over logical ordering, and the emphasis on harmony reinforces affirmative versus critical thinking, the importance of wisdom in Confucianism, which involves conversing in an open-minded and logical manner, along with communicative critical discussion can be seen as aspects of the philosophy that promote a non-quarrelsome, studiousness, and impartial approach to inquiry. Taking Confucius’ lesson of learning from the past, Confucian ideology itself can be used in the present by negotiating what aspects of the philosophy align with modern values over those that do not. For some, such an approach is the only way to apply Confucian philosophy to solve contemporary problems, while for others using Confucian texts in different contexts to support arguments that may have not been relevant during Confucius’ time reveals the plurality and imprecision of meaning in interpreting ancient philosophy. Whether Confucian philosophy promotes or runs counter to critical rationalism is therefore dependent on how the reader chooses to interpret Confucian texts.


Confucian Sayings- 儒家的智慧

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Video series: ‘Confucianism and Liberal Education’ (儒学与自由教育) with Tu Weiming

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Scholar and founding director of the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University, Tu Weiming, discusses the development of liberal education in the West, and how Confucianism embodies a critical thinking philosophy that addresses many similar themes. The question then becomes: how can the Confucian tradition enrich the conversation about the future of liberal education in the United States and around the world?

Professor Tu’s lecture was co-sponsored by the Georgetown University’s Global Liberal Education Initiative.

A conversation on ideology in contemporary China- 当代中国的意识形态对话

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Confucian ideology

Despite the Chinese government’s attempts to ban its citizens from writing about controversial topics that criticize the authorities, in recent years a number of intellectuals have adopted a liberal perspective in their work and have been actively reporting and theorizing about democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Even in the online world, where social media users have to use hashtags and emojis to avoid censorship bans, more Chinese people are being influenced by global trends and are becoming vocal about their experiences of social inequality and environmental pollution. Much to the dislike of the government, even the #MeToo campaign that started in America spread to China after a Weibo user documented about her experiences of sexual harassment at Beihang University in Beijing. However, even after the authorities responded to the scandal by blocking the hashtag #MeTooInChina, online users created nicknames like #RiceBunnyInChina to continue the campaign and highlight the harassment. Critics have noted that attempts to block such conversations from occurring disables intellectual debate, isolates Chinese people from the global community, and generally silences groups from having their voices heard.

China’s censorship laws also have implications for its relations overseas. As a recent article in the Times Higher Education has stated, the new era of increased Chinese economic power poses a threat to academic freedom across the world and could have many universities blocking content to ensure their ongoing partnerships with China. Last year, Cambridge University Press removed hundreds of pages and book reviews on politically sensitive topics, such as the Tiananmen Square protests, Tibet, and Taiwan, from their online journal after a Chinese government agency warned that it would block access to Cambridge’s website. Although Cambridge reinstated these articles after claiming that it had received a “justifiably intense reaction from the global academic community”, it has also been reported that Springer Nature had censored some of its content in response to demands made by Chinese export agencies. William Callahan, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, states that as civil society has been shrinking in China since President Xi took office in 2012, the country’s increasing influence has meant that Westerners should be “concerned about how China is censoring what we’re doing all around the world” as the country tries to increase its power by exporting censorship.

As some states respond to the issue of Chinese foreign interference- for example, in 2017 Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull spoke Mandarin and declared that Australia will “stand up” against any power meddling in its national affairs- writers within China have also been trying to revive liberal ideas by publishing their papers through foreign publishers. In their research on liberalism in China, Tang and McConaghy (2018) note that based on what they have come across in foreign and less-known Chinese journals, the major areas that are being discussed in this field include the meaning of China’s 20th-century history, especially the Cultural Revolution; the social inequality created by market reforms; statism and the rejection of Euro-American political models; and cultural pluralism in twenty-first century China.

It should be noted that Chinese liberals are not the same as the ‘New Left’ school in China or the ‘New Confucians’. While the New Left are critical of the class antagonisms that have been created by marketization and decentralizing the economy, the New Confucians seek to reinvigorate Confucian practices as a way of strengthening national solidarity and cultural identity as a way of maintaining political stability. In contrast, the liberalists are most opposed to the party-state. In the journal Southern Weekly (南方周末), Zhu Xueqin stated that following the principle that people are born noble and free from restraint in action or speech, economically, the liberalists believe in the market economy and not state planning. Politically, the school advocates for representative democracy, constitutionalism, and legality against dictatorship of the majority. Finally, in terms of ethics, liberalism advocates protection of the individual who, it is argued, should never be used as a means for any abstract purpose as was the case between 1966 and 1976 when more than one million people died under the policies implemented by Mao and other Party leaders.

Historically, the One-Hundred Day reforms in 1898 was the first time when liberal ideas emerged to challenge the Qing autocracy in China. From the 1920s to the 1940s, liberal intellectuals tried to theorise about the relevance of liberalism compared to all other ideological alternatives that were often more attractive to people who sought an immediate political solution for the country’s nation-building project. However, under the Chinese communists, who interpreted liberalism as meaning that an individual could do what they wanted regardless of the circumstances and interests of others, liberalism almost entirely disappeared from public discussion as it became associated with bourgeois ideology and the West.

In that case, it was significant that editor of the pro-democracy journal Beijing Spring, Hu Ping, wrote the book On Freedom of Speech (1979), which advocated for liberal principles in post-Maoist China. After Deng Xiaoping helped direct the country towards economic reforms and the country began to integrate into the world economy, the political atmosphere in China created opportunities for the return of the liberal discourse. Especially from the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a number of books by English and American authors were published as the demand for democracy and representation created traction in extending the liberal perspective throughout society.

 At the same time, many intellectuals also reacted to globalisation and China’s increasing global standing by turning to ‘Chinese-made’ solutions to address the country’s social problems. Rejecting the idea that Western political models are adequate paradigms for development and modernisation, the majority of Chinese writers have resisted discussions on democracy and liberalism and have instead focused more on ideas of social democracy underpinned by Marxist–Leninist principles. The authorities have allowed groups such as the New Confucians more political space as they attempt to create a new universalism that is superior to Western liberalism and not historically associated with slavery, colonialism, and racial exclusion. This school of thought aligns with the government’s aims of establishing China as a civilizational force that can become a dominant cultural model in the twenty-first century.

Although proponents of liberalism such as Xu Youyu argue that the country’s Confucian-nationalist project uses a deeply distorted version of the past that ignores the country’s history of linguistic, economic, and demographic heterogeneity, antagonism to Western political thought has meant that Chinese liberalism remains on the margins. The Party has continued to tighten its control over the media, religious groups, and civil society associations as the government introduces cybersecurity and foreign NGO laws and increased internet surveillance. A renewed push for ideological conformity has undermined earlier rule of law reforms and uses nationalism as a pillar for government legitimacy. This raises questions about the future of China’s ideological plurality, the implications and meaning of using Confucianism as a political project, and whether liberalist thought can once again gain traction during Xi Jinping’s rule.

Happy Lunar New Year! 新年快乐!

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New Year

This year, the Lunar New Year, the year of the dog, will be celebrated by more than 1.5 billion people on February the 16th. The celebration combines religious and secular rites based on the religious-philosophies of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. While preparations begin a week before the celebration begins, the main focus throughout the festivities is spending time with family and friends, enjoying feasts, and gift-giving.

The importance of family and social relationships, especially during the holiday period, is a key theme in Confucianism as three out of the five basic relationships for humans occurs in the family. Cultures throughout the Asian continent, especially in China, encourage individuals to expand the prosperity and vitality of their families since a healthy and harmonious family is believed to build a stable society.

The Confucian value of filiality is not only seen throughout the ancient texts (see the Analects, 2.5 and 2.6 for example), but during New Year celebrations too as rituals and acts are carried out that symbolise paying respects to the elders. These include bowing to parents and grandparents and prioritising serving elders food during large gatherings. Visiting temples is also a common practice as paying respects to one’s ancestors by reciting prayers, lighting incense sticks, and making offerings is thought to be an important part of character development and starting the new year with luck.

Throughout the world, the diaspora from China and other Confucian societies choose to either make the trip back home for the celebrations or celebrate in their host countries. The Confucius institute in Cambodia, for example, holds New Year activities such as watching CCTV’s New Year gala, holding a reunion dinner, giving red envelopes, and setting off firecrackers and fireworks. In Leeds, the Chinese Community School plan to host an orchestra from China to perform traditional Chinese music, song, and dance, while the Art Institute of Chicago is holding an exhibition titled “Mirroring China’s Past: Emperors and their Bronzes” between Feb. 25 and May 13, exhibiting Chinese bronzes of the second and first millennia BC.

However you choose to celebrate, the Confucian Weekly Bulletin wishes you good luck and happiness in the New Year.

Engagement with China and the Enlightenment- 与中国的接触与启示

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Image: Pope Encourages Conference on 17th Century Jesuit, ‘Friend of the Dear Chinese People’.

‘The Enlightenment’ broadly refers to the intellectual and scientific progress in eighteenth century Europe that was inspired by the Scientific Revolution during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During this period, many intellectuals started to develop a worldview that was critical of religious authority. Belief in miracles and faith were no longer accepted as adequate ways of explaining how the world functioned and came to be. This undermined not only the geocentric understanding of the cosmos as Galileo proved that the earth was not the centre of the universe, but also marked a shift in the way mainstream academia thought about human evolution, from the goal-directed explanation of Lamarck to Darwin’s natural selection theory.

In his essay, ‘An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?’ (1784), Immanuel Kant wrote that this social and spiritual development of society (Aufklärung) symbolised the rational coming of humankind and a release from self-enforced immaturity. Immaturity here refers to the inability to use independent thought without the guidance of another. There were many factors that contributed to the culture of rationality and individualism in Europe, including the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) during which people started to question religion and warfare, as well as The Age of Exploration, in which discoveries in the New World exposed Europe to other philosophies and cultures. However, one of the less discussed influences on Europe’s intellectual history is contact with 17th century China. As Franklin Perkins (2004) notes, by disregarding this aspect of the development of secularism in Europe,

 We strengthen the illusion that European thought is a causa sui, growing up of itself, without interaction with the rest of the world. This illusion of an independent Europe allows for easy distinctions between “us” and “them”, “East” and “West,” at the same time that it obscures the historicity of those distinctions (p. x).

By the end of the sixteenth century, interaction between Europe and China was already underway as Jesuit missionaries engaged in cultural and scientific exchange: one of the earlier examples of public diplomacy. For Roman Catholic missionary, Francis Xavier (1506–1552), the journey to China was considered “the dream of Jerusalem” after many were unable to make the long sea journey around the Indian ocean. As a distant place that explorers considered as ‘waiting’ to be discovered, China became the ‘Jerusalem of Asia’, a place that would provide a new map of spiritual progress that would unite the world.

One of the main developments from these visits though was not so much the expansion of biblical thought, but the development of the pre-Adamism movement. In short, this was the belief that humans existed before Adam. By studying Chinese chronology, which showed that China was ruled by emperor Fu Xi (around 2950 BCE) long before the biblical flood (2349 BCE), many writers asserted alternative theories to the biblical version of world history. Dutch scholar Isaac Vossius, for instance, claimed that Chinese chronology, covering more than 4,000 years, was an accurate source for showing that the dates of the Hebrew Bible could have been wrong. Biblical events like the flood were increasingly considered local events that only happened to the Jews and no longer as universally valid or applicable.

Writers like Voltaire expressed similar thoughts. In his encyclopaedic entry on ‘history’, Voltaire pointed to Chinese historiography as a primeval and reliable source that recorded events that he thought probably did take place. Without mention of gods or miracles, China stood as a model for secular universal history, and even managed to feature notable characters like Confucius, who Voltaire described as a sage transmitting “the purest ideas that human nature unassisted by revelation can form of the supreme being” (1759, p. 23). The discovery of Chinese chronology ultimately provoked many authors to question the credibility of Biblical authority, starting a conversation on the role of the supernatural in historical inquiry, and whether there should be a division between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ history.

It should be noted that in many cases the Jesuit and missionary writings that attempted to describe China in theory and practice either over-exaggerated praise for China or interpreted Chinese history and ethics from a Christian point of view. Vossius’s writings are a prime example. Demonstrating his strong interest and admination of China, he regarded China as a real life Platonic republic ruled by philosopher kings such as Confucius. For Vossius, not only was it a place free from war, the Chinese were one of the most advanced and productive people, writing in one the oldest languages and accomplishing in areas like medicine, architecture, and music long before any other nation advanced in these fields (see Vossius, 1685, p. 57-58).

Study of Confucianism led many to believe that Chinese philosophy also represented a universal morality. While failing to mention God as the supreme origin of moral law, Confucianism was still considered a superior way of being that could align with many Christian beliefs. Jesuit Alvarez Semedo (1585-1658) considered Confucian virtues such as ren to be equal to the Christian virtues of piety (piedad) and humanity (humanidad). Unlike the pagans, Semedo (1642) argued that Confucianists still worshiped some supreme force (Tao – the Way; also Tian – Heaven as the moral universe) without comparing it with other beings. Translations of major works such as the Doctrine of the Mean (Zhongyong) and the Analects (Lunyu) were interpreted in ways where the authors highlighted similarities between Christianity and Confucianism. The common phrase ‘who offends against Heaven’ in Chinese texts was changed to ‘who sins against Heaven’, as ‘sin’ was more appropriate to Christian understandings of transgression and lawlessness.

It could be said that this encounter with Chinese philosophy and history by the early Jesuits and later writers who would publish books about their experiences in China partly contributed to ideas of progress, rationalism, and history in the West. Very much like the Confucian revivalist movement today, Confucian morality was considered to be the equivalent to Christianity in its emphasis on virtues, order, and harmony. Although these understandings of China would have been a consideration in the development of Enlightenment theories, the exchange had little to do with dialogue. The one-sided explanations of China show how authors are in positions of power to communicate ideas, many of which are based on interests that align with the dominant ideology and political climate. For centuries, writings about China from these encounters would have shaped popular imaginations about the Far East as both ‘exciting’, ‘advanced’, ‘entertaining’, but also as ‘frightening’ and ‘uncivilised’. The paradoxical views of the Chinese and China’s rise continue to impact perceptions of what China is and how it is influencing the world, and so it is important to be aware that these views and depictions never exist in isolation. Theories about the world not only develop within a society, but from contact with the outside world and the perspectives of individuals who write about these engagements.

Confucian Sayings- 儒家的智慧

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