Confucianism: Too noble for Europe?

Another way of interpretively disregarding the relevance of non-Western forms of thinking is to elevate them above and beyond Western philosophical discourse. Confucianism, Daoism, and Zen Buddhism—to mention the lineages discussed in the course of this book—can be construed as too subtle and noble for modern alienated Western humanity that has philosophy because it lacks a more genuine way of thinking and experiencing the world. There are advocates of Confucianism in the West and East who deny that it can be comprehended by or as philosophy, since this would entail its denigration to estranged dualistic Western thinking or the pathologies of modern Western civilization.

Martin Buber and Helmuth Plessner risk excluding Confucianism through its elevation. They, like Misch, recognized the ethical and spiritual core at work in Confucian philosophy in the turbulent period of 1920s Germany. Similarly to Bertrand Russell’s comparison of Chinese and Western culture in The Problem of China (1922), in which Chinese happiness is favorably contrasted with the alienated and obsessive Western struggle for power and success, Buber concluded—in the last years of the Weimar Republic in Buber’s 1928 lecture “China and Us” that Confucian ethics was ethically too noble and demanding, as well as inevitably culturally inappropriate, for a Europe dominated and endangered by its lust for power and struggle for existence. In The Belated Nation (1935), his early critique of National Socialism and the German conditions that made it possible, Plessner praised Confucian autonomy and culture while arguing for the impossibility of a second or new European Confucianism due to its Christian faith and alienated industrial organization of life.58

Plessner and Buber praise while rejecting the transportability of Confucian teachings. In Buber’s “China and Us,” the encounter between Chinese practical wisdom and modern European reality cannot occur through Confucian philosophy for the following reasons: it is (1) too morally idealistic for modern European sensibilities absorbed by the quest for power and success, (2) impossible to realize in a European context because Confucian ethics presupposes a particular culturally rooted understanding of family relations and relationship between the living and the dead that is lacking in the West, and, finally, (3) inadequate to the fundamental problematic of modern European civilization: the restless unfettered drive for power, progress, and accumulation.59

Buber construes Confucianism as an interconnected fusion of the universal and particular, such that its universal message cannot be disconnected from its Chinese contexts and transported into and adopted in another cultural matrix. Buber’s conclusions in this regard can well be questioned as the transmission of Confucianism has already been long underway in pre-modern East Asia and across the globe in modernity.

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