A Peculiar Journey: Confucian Philosophy in German Thought

The Master said, “I would prefer not speaking.” Zi Gong said, “If you, Master, do not speak, what shall we, your disciples, have to record?” The Master said, “Does Heaven speak? The four seasons pursue their courses, and all things are continually being produced, but does Heaven say anything?”

—Confucius, Analects 17:19.

Introduction: Whose Confucius? Which Confucianism?

Modern Western philosophy—which is simultaneously universal in its pretensions about its scope and provincial in its actual practices—has been largely indifferent, when not allergically antagonistic, to non-Western forms of thinking. The very notion of the universality of philosophy is belied by the provincial assumption that it is an exclusively and uniquely Western form of thinking and stance toward the world. The Eurocentric conception of philosophy is historically a relatively recent modern invention. It is not rooted in and is opposed to the premodern self-understanding of philosophy, from antiquity to the early modern period, in which all peoples were perceived as having capacities for rational reflection and the formation of life in pursuing wisdom and the good life. The modern exclusion of non-Western philosophy is interconnected with the codification of the history of philosophy in thinkers such as Ast and Hegel. It is decisively shaped by the European encounter and colonial interaction with non-Western forms of life and thought. This is not only a historical matter of concern; the Eurocentric prejudice—which takes itself to be universal but is at most an ethnocentric a priori—continues to haunt and confine the experiential and critical potential contemporary philosophizing inside and outside of academia.

The dismissiveness of Western philosophers toward non-Western thinking and philosophizing applies to East Asian ruist (rujia ШШ) philosophies despite their rich and varied traditions of reflection and argumentation in premodern and modern China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Ru M signifies “erudite” or “scholar”; jia Щ. refers to specialized discourse, teaching, or intellectual lineage. “Confucianism” is the English-language designation stemming from the Catholic missionary encounter with late Ming and early Qing dynasty China.1 The designation “Confucianism” is intended to represent the diverse discourses associated with the ru from Chinese antiquity through East Asian Neo-Confucianisms to current endeavors to revive Confucian philosophy in an adequate modern democratic and progressive form.

Modern Western philosophy has had its exceptions and insurgents who opposed its reductive tendencies to exclude, ignore, and degrade non-Western forms of thinking as non-thinking or another kind of thinking that does not count as genuine thinking. There have been and continue to be atypical Western thinkers who, interpretively oriented by their own projects and ways of understanding philosophy, endeavored—if often in flawed ways—to encounter, engage, and enter into dialogue with non-Western discourses. A number of these figures, from G. W. Leibniz and Christian Wolff to Georg Misch and Martin Buber, have engaged Eastern discourses as philosophically illuminating and capable of teaching the West in an “exchange of light,” to use Leibniz’s expression, and encounter and dialogue, to adopt Buber’s language.2 In this chapter, and the first three chapters of this work, we—at least those interested in undertaking such a project—will reflect on the history and philosophical import of attempts at encountering, understanding, and entering into dialogue with Confucian philosophy, focusing on—but not limited to—German philosophy in the first half of the twentieth-century.

Confucianism, since the Enlightenment, is a significant case study to trace for the emerging discourse of intercultural philosophy. It has been perceived— earlier in Leibniz, Wolff, and Justi, and later in Misch and Buber—as capable of teaching the West by offering thought-worthy ethical-political insights and self-reflective models that could help inform and reform a Western practice and reflection that has failed to adequately achieve its potential and lost its way.

The modern European appropriation of Confucius (Kongzi ?L^), who is admittedly frequently a constructed image formed in European fantasy than a historical reality in these works, has been an ambivalent process consisting of multiple incompatible interpretative strategies and theses. “Confucius” and “Confucian China” have been aggressively condemned by a series of philosophers from Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715) through Hegel and Schelling to Franz Rosenzweig for failing to appreciate the essentially religious character of ethics and the religious depth and height of human existence. Since Pierre Bayles and Malebranche’s identification of Confucianism with the pantheism of Spinoza, the exotic figure of Confucius has been entangled in European debates about the intrinsic religiosity of morality and the possibility of a secular and rationalistic ethics that Confucian ethics was alleged to represent.3 Confucianism functioned in this context as a contested site for internal modern European concerns over the threat and promise of a rationalized and secularized this-worldly ethics. Religiously oriented philosophers and Christian theologians, such as the Pietists who condemned Wolff and forced him to flee from Jena for equating Jesus and Confucius in his lecture on the Practical Philosophy of the Chinese (1726), claimed that such an ethics undermined the religious basis of morality.4 If there is no absolute foundation for morality in God, then morals appear to be relativized to variable social customs and arbitrary individual choices.

The secular interpretation of Confucianism is not the only one seen in this journey to the West. Confucius has been imagined in his European reception to be either an exemplary religious thinker or a sage of secular nonreligious ethics depending on how the discourse of tian ^ (typically translated as “heaven”; less frequently translated as “God”) in the Analects (Lunyu §й1и) and other Confucian classics has been interpreted. Due to the appeal to heaven in passages in the Analects, Confucius could be understood as an Enlightening philosopher of natural theology in the writings of Leibniz, or later Wilhelm Dilthey, who both stressed the ethical in interpreting the religious. Variations on the idea of Confucian ethical religiosity are expressed by Friedrich Schleiermacher and Buber. Confucius is in their expositions a philosopher whose teaching transcends a purely rationalistic interpretation of the religious, indicating the height of heaven above finite human existence. Confucius has been, in addition, conceived of as prefiguring and indicating the possibility of a secular, nonreligious, purely immanent ethics from Voltaire and the Enlightenment through Josef Popper-Lynkeus, Otto Neurath, and (moderated through a life-philosophical perspective) Misch to recent interpreters of Confucius. The American philosopher Herbert Fingarette, for instance, interpreted the Analects as a discourse of “the secular as the sacred.”5

This understanding of Confucius is echoed in earlier accounts. The English Deist and freethinker Matthew Tindal (1657-1733) contended that one can employ the clarity of the maxims of Confucius to clarify the obscurity of the maxims of Jesus: “I am so far from thinking the maxims of Confucius and Jesus Christ to differ, that I think the plain and simple maxims of the former, will help to illustrate the more obscure ones of the latter, accommodated to the then way of speaking"6 Confucianism, whether deistically or atheistically construed according to the imagination of Enlightenment thinking in Christian Wolff (1679-1754), Georg Bernhard Bilfinger (1693-1750), and Johann Heinrich Gottlob von Justi (1717-1771) in Germany, Tindal in Britain, or Francis-Marie Arouet (Voltaire, 1694-1778) in France, drew the opposition of his Western religious philosophical critics such as Hegel, Schelling, and later Rosenzweig.

Confucianism’s peculiar journey to and within the Occident has led to its interpretation as a deeply flawed practical philosophy by both proponents and critics of conventional Western approaches to ethics. It has been depicted as inadequate to the rational and autonomous character of ethical personhood by Kant and the Western idea of individual freedom by Herder and Hegel. It is another political and bio-spiritual technique of maintaining oppressive slave morality and regimenting the life of the masses in Friedrich Nietzsche’s description addressed in Chapter 3. Rosenzweig perceived in it the ethos of purely practical calculation and characterless mass humanity lacking ethical depth, height, and personality.

This chapter traces episodes in the story of European Confucianism by exploring historical examples of the role and interpretation of Confucianism in modern German philosophy in general and in early twentieth-century thought in particular. The strange story of the Confucian journey in the West encompasses a number of turns and twists in the path about issues such as the nature of philosophical thinking and religion, the best form of government, and the sources of ethics. The key question of the current chapter concerns the latter issue: must ethics be religious, rooted in heaven or God, or can there be a legitimate secular ethics focused on ethical life in this world alone? This chapter briefly reviews the historical context from Leibniz to Nietzsche, while focusing on how a diverse range of religious and secular twentieth-century German thinkers (a group that encompasses Buber, Jaspers, Misch, Plessner, Popper- Lynkeus, Rosenzweig, the sociologist Weber, as well as others such as Driesch and Eucken who are discussed in Chapter 2) intellectually engaged Chinese thought and culture and debated the philosophical, religious, and ethical significance of Confucian philosophy in the modern European context.

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