Two: Retrieving Confucius: Buber, Misch, and Jaspers Georg Misch: The Confucian ethical revolution
A distinctive interpretation of Socrates and Confucius is found in a neglected classic of intercultural hermeneutics written by Georg Misch (1878-1965): Der Weg in die Philosophie (literally, “The Way into Philosophy”). This work was first published in German in 1926 and published in English in a substantially revised form as The Dawn of Philosophy: A Philosophical Primer in 1951.48 Misch was the student and son-in-law of the hermeneutical life-philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey, and a professor of philosophy in Gottingen, except during his exile from Nazi Germany from 1935 to 1946 due to his Jewish background.
Misch interpreted the life and teaching of Confucius as revealing the loftiness of moral personality in the formation and cultivation of an embodied rational individuality in response to the European philosophers’ negative view of Confucius evident in Hegel, Schelling, and Rosenzweig.49 Rosenzweig had denied the Chinese individuality and personality. Misch is one of the few European philosophers to recognize how different forms of subjectivity, self- fashioning, and individuation occur in non-Western forms of life. He portrayed the rich Chinese historical and biographical tradition in this problematic context, which included the history of Chinese, Indian, and Islamic lives as well as European ones, in his pioneering and expansive History of Autobiography. Autobiographical and biographical writing, in its philosophical import for what it reveals about individual and social life, is one way in which these—to the Western gaze seemingly invisible—lives become visible.
Weber, Misch, and a few decades later Karl Jaspers in his writings on the axial age and the great foundational exemplary thinkers interpreted the figure of Confucius as inaugurating, much like Socrates, an ethical transformation of society.50 They diverged, as previous and later generations of interpreters would, on the issue of whether Confucius initiated a new model of philosophical and ethical self-reflectiveness (Misch, Jaspers) or prioritized the ethical as the center point of the religious (Weber and, earlier, Dilthey).
Dilthey had interpreted Confucius in a cursory way as interpreting the religious according to a moral ideal.51 Misch articulated his ethical and philosophical significance, arguing in his important work for intercultural philosophy Der Weg in die Philosophie that Confucius initiated a Socratic style yet distinctive ethically oriented revolution in thinking and practice. Confucian ethics aims at the ethical liberation freimachen) of existence within the immanence of historical life rather than seeking redemption in transcendence beyond this worldly existence.52 The Socratic and Confucian lesson concerns reflectively awakening to this life rather than rising to a world beyond the world.
According to Misch, a this-worldly immanent self-reflection concerning the self and the community is evident in Confucian discourses that are intrinsically philosophical if philosophy is understood as the movement of critical reflection on self and world:
The assumption that Greek-born philosophy was the “natural” one, that the European way of philosophizing was the logically necessary way, betrayed that sort of self-confidence which comes from narrowness of vision. The assumption falls to the ground directly [when] you look beyond the confines of Europe. The Chinese beginning of philosophy, connected with the name of Confucius, was primarily concerned with those very matters which according to the traditional European formula were only included in philosophy as a result of the reorientation effected by Socrates, namely, life within the human, social, and historical world. The task of the early Confucians was to achieve a rational foundation for morality which should assure humans their dignity and provide an ethical attitude in politics.53
In contrast to the habitual exclusion of Confucius—not to mention other non-Western philosophical figures—from the Western philosophical canon, Misch argued that Socrates could not be considered a philosopher either if the same criteria were consistently applied; e.g., dialogical and indirect teaching instead of an explicit systematic theoretical discourse, reflecting on ethical life rather than speculation about nature or the supernatural, and the immanent hermeneutical awakening of historical life to itself in conjunction with individual self-cultivation (Bildung) in contrast with the impersonal and neutral external or transcendent point of view favored by modern Western philosophy.54
Mischs awareness of the autobiographical dimensions of philosophy, and his notion of a situated reflection and rationality, are important elements of his interpretive openness to non-Western philosophy. Mischs strategy in The Dawn of Philosophy is significant for a contemporary intercultural hermeneutics by widening the conception of philosophy to encompass Confucius and Chinese thought. It does this not by appealing to the problematic idea of a perennial philosophy, or a hidden universal unity in human thought; nor does it overemphasize the role of genius and the “great person,” as in Jaspers’s historical portraits of the norm-setting paradigmatic individual thinkers who offer guiding models for humanity to follow.55
Misch’s intercultural hermeneutics, which begins with his own European hermeneutical situation as his point of departure, is evident when he discusses the affinities and differences between Socrates and Confucius. The difference between Socrates and Confucius is not that one is inside philosophy and the other is thematized as outside it, but it consists in the different styles of dialogue and argumentation used by these two thinkers. In the case of Socrates, there is a particular form of logical and scientific argumentation that is peculiar to the early Western tradition, even as logic and argumentation cannot be taken to be exclusively Western practices.56
Misch’s argumentation in this The Dawn of Philosophy transformed the more limited point of his teacher Dilthey, who—as mentioned above— interpreted Confucius as placing ethics in the middle-point of religion. After the stages of natural and cultural religion arises ethical religion that Dilthey identified with Confucius, the Buddha, Jesus, and Mohamed.57 Misch is closer to the Enlightenment interpretation of Confucius even as he transforms it in a hermeneutical and life-philosophical way.