- Centrality or Pathway? A Discussion of the Position of Harmony in Confucian Philosophy
The publication of The Confucian Philosophy of Harmony is yet another step Chen-yang Li has taken in investigating the usefulness and relevance of traditional Chinese philosophy in the contemporary world.1 The book demonstrates a unique insight into the otherwise seemingly random sayings concerning one of the key concepts in the Chinese philosophical traditions, with a particular focus on the Confucian discourse in early texts. By exploring original materials and sifting through the evidence hidden in these texts, examining their arguments and counterarguments, Li has given us what can be said to be the most comprehensive and in-depth study on the concept of harmony in Confucian studies to date. Among its merits are its innovative interpretations and reinterpretations, evaluating the application and practice of harmony in personal, family, social, political, and cosmological contexts. Li works multilayered and multidimensional sources into a reasonably systematic construction of the philosophy of harmony. There is evidence that the book has generated wide interest in how Confucians understand harmony and how Confucian harmony should be understood, and scholars working in both Chinese philosophy and comparative philosophy have already started learning from this book in developing their own arguments.
While I highly appreciate the book’s originality and insightful views, I would like to pose a number of questions about some of Li’s arguments and the way he makes use of source materials and supporting evidence. None of these questions devalues Li’s work on highlighting the importance of harmony to the building of a new framework for Confucian philosophy; rather these questions are intended to critically evaluate the main claim of the book — namely that the concept of harmony is the central line running through Confucian discourses or underlying Confucian philosophy — with the intention to caution readers that there might be methodological flaws hidden in the statements and arguments in the book that could be misleading in one way or another. By examining the potential weaknesses of the book, the object of my critical review is to make the point that it must not be taken for granted that harmony is central to Confucianism and that it would be beneficial to readers if we see harmony as a pathway to the ideal life propagated in the Confucian tradition. [End Page 229]
Li specifies that “the methodology of this book is both reconstructive and constructive” (p. 2). To construct and reconstruct harmony as the central concept of Confucian philosophy, he claims at the very beginning that “If we were to choose just one word to characterize the Chinese ideal way of life, that word would be ‘harmony’” (p. 1). Following the strategy of “construction and reconstruction,” Li divides the book into two parts, one roughly about what harmony is (part 1) and the other about how harmony functions in practice (part 2). Part 1 is concerned with the lexical and philosophical meanings and implications of Chinese characters and texts for, or in relation to, harmony, and how these meanings and implications can be employed to generate a philosophy of “deep harmony.” This part goes through an analysis of harmony in Confucian contexts using a light comparison with Greek and other Chinese understandings of harmony, and explores the creative tension that is inherent in Confucian harmony, its origin in music, its function in ritual/propriety, and its relation to centrality and equilibrium (zhong 中). Part 2 studies the applications of harmony in personal life, family, society, world peace, and the cosmos.
These two aspects are of course important, and nothing is wrong with the way Li makes use of them to justify his views. However, I wonder if this approach risks manipulating the material into something that is to be deliberately constructed, or, as Li himself explicitly states, something used to assemble “the ideas . . . into a coherent view” (p. 2). Li’s reconstruction may well lead the reader to suspect that he has taken a dogmatic position, using various sources to support what he already had in mind from the beginning, while giving less adequate attention to proving the statements he takes for granted. It would be...