An exchange of life: Confucianism as self-reflective life-philosophy

Misch unfolded a hermeneutical life-philosophical account of the teaching of Confucius in a way that Dilthey never accomplished. Contrary to Hegel’s account of Confucianism, Misch interpreted Confucianism as a discourse of concrete historical reflection. Confucian ethics provided a powerful model for an age dominated by the urge to form a new philosophy of life (Lebensphilosophie) through the early Confucius’ inclusion of the interpretive engagement with and reflection on the conditions of “historical life.” This new emerging philosophy would either learn from philosophies such as Confucianism that further historical enlightenment and our critical capacities for historical reflection or it would be undone by the crisis of reason that undermines our capacity for reflection and critique in the mere absorption in and celebration of irrational and violent biological and historical life-forces. This sense of crisis shaped the German reception of Confucianism in the 1920s, as will be further examined in the works of Eucken and Driesch in Chapter 3.

Misch’s interpretation of Confucianism in this work was, sharing some affinities with Buber’s 1928 lecture discussed below, shaped by the sense of crisis and impending disaster of Weimar Republic Germany. Confucianism is fundamentally philosophical in reflectively engaging our practical life-situation with the aim of elucidating and morally transforming it. It consequently can speak to the modern Western situation limited by the false choice between an abstract rationalism detached from life and a concrete irrationalism unreflectively attached to life’s instincts and urges.

Misch’s conception of philosophy has noteworthy implications for considering its intercultural nature, as will be discussed later in detail in Chapter 5 on Misch, Heidegger, and the origins of philosophy. Philosophy occurs where thinking occurs rather than being defined as a property of one historical tradition from ancient Greece to modern Europe. To speak pluralistically of “philosophies,” or to think “philosophy” as intrinsically singularly plural instead of giving into the temptation that there can be one exclusive measure of what is and what is not philosophy, may sound inexplicable to ears habituated and trained to thinking of philosophy as either one universal theoretical truth or as one particular historical and fateful transmission from the Greeks to their self-declared modern Occidental inheritors. Yet if, as the hermeneutical life-philosopher Misch argued in the 1920s, the unity of philosophy does not consist in the identity of one theoretical vision or one historical tradition, then its universality need not entail the negation of the particularities through which it actually occurs and is experientially and historically enacted.

Philosophy has its living actuality in the concrete moments in which, according to Misch, there is an encounter, crisis, and breakthrough (Durchbruch)—that we will return to in Chapter 5 in a discussion of Misch and Heidegger—which leads to critical reflection on life and its conditions and to personal and social transformation. These concrete moments of disorientation and reorientation— of breakthrough, reflection, and transformation—occurred in diverse forms in China, India, Israel, Persia, and ancient Greece, as well as in the modern Enlightenment that has a unique historical significance for Western civilization.

The “breakthrough” of the world into the limited and self-limiting self does not occur through any particular content; it is manifest in the Buddha’s reorienting exposure to the suffering of others or in the endeavors of Mencius (Mengzi ^^) to dialogically awaken King Hui of Liang (Liang Hui Wang T) to his responsibility for others. The occurrence of breakthrough, reflection, and potential transformation occurs in the midst of the nexus of concrete historical life.

Misch’s pluralistic conception of philosophy as taking place through breakthrough and self-reflection remains suggestive. It does not presuppose one universal philosophical doctrine, a hidden metaphysical reality beyond the conditions of the nexus of life, or the myth of one coherent and continuous metaphysical tradition of universal conceptual thinking (Hegel, Husserl) or the thinking of metaphysics and being (Heidegger, Derrida, Rorty) stemming from Hellas and culminating in Western modernity that has become global yet to which Asians and others remain outside and external except to the degree that they become “universally human” (as Husserl asserted) by becoming Western.

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