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Dao Companion to Neo-Confucian Philosophy (review)

From: Journal of Song-Yuan Studies
Volume 41, 2011
pp. 439-443 | 10.1353/sys.2011.0029

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The Dao Companion to Neo-Confucian Philosophy edited by John Makeham is the first in a series of “Dao Companions” to Chinese Philosophy published by Springer. As the term “companion” suggests, the objective of the series is not simply to offer concise explanations of key terms, concepts, schools of thought, and individual philosophers in the manner of an encyclopedia. Rather, the volumes in the series set out to provide a more comprehensive account of Chinese philosophy that showcases the richness and value of China’s philosophical tradition. With respect to the series’ stated objectives, the volume devoted to Neo-Confucianism can be regarded as a qualified success.

The organizational structure of the Dao Companion to Neo-Confucian Philosophy is straightforward. In addition to an introductory essay by John Makeham, the work consists of nineteen separate, chronologically arranged essays on influential Neo-Confucian thinkers. The majority of the essays focus on the philosophical positions of a particular intellectual, and although there are areas of overlap between different essays, they were written to stand on their own, independent of other entries in the volume. According to Makeham, the decision making process regarding which thinkers to include was collaborative and somewhat ad hoc: particular scholars were approached due to their expertise on specific thinkers, however they were allowed to select the thinkers and ideas they wanted to introduce. The result of this process, whether intentional or not, has been a heavy emphasis on Neo-Confucian thinkers from the Song dynasty. Of the nineteen essays in the volume thirteen are devoted to Song figures, with the remaining six entries evenly split between Ming and Qing thinkers.

In addition to the nineteen content essays, the Dao Companion to Neo-Confucian Philosophy contains two features worthy of mention. The first feature is the annotated bibliographies appended to the majority of the essays. The annotations, which provide brief descriptions of the content and objectives of the listed works, are extremely useful and they offer helpful direction to individuals interested in further reading or research. The second useful feature is its extremely comprehensive index, which lists virtually every key concept and intellectual discussed within its four hundred plus pages. The quality of the index makes it easy to find information on a wide variety of topics, turning the Dao Companion to Neo-Confucian Philosophy into a valuable reference resource on Neo-Confucian philosophy.

The objectives of the Dao Companion to Neo-Confucian Philosophy are clearly stated in Makeham’s introductory essay. He asserts that the primary aim of the volume is to elucidate the thought of individual Neo-Confucian philosophers for an audience composed of both laymen and specialists. The essays are overwhelmingly devoted to explaining key issues in Neo-Confucian philosophical discourse, including debates over specific philosophical concepts, the manner in which Neo-Confucians grounded their conception of the human condition in a particular understanding of the relationship between the cosmos and humanity, and the central role given to the problem of self-cultivation by thinkers in the tradition. Readers interested in a more historical approach to the development of Neo-Confucianism in China should look elsewhere.

This philosophical focus is evident in the methodological approaches employed by the contributors to the volume. To his credit, Makeham gave the authors relatively free reign in choosing how to explore the philosophical import of specific thinkers. In his introductory essay, Makeham divides their approaches into three types: those that employ concepts and rubrics from Western philosophy, particularly virtue ethics, to analyze Neo-Confucian thought; those that rely on native Chinese categories to shed light on particular aspects of the Neo-Confucian tradition; and those that combine elements of these two approaches.

The inclusion of analyses utilizing these different approaches is certainly one of the strengths of the volume. The essays that analyze Neo-Confucian thought in terms of Western philosophical issues, such as those by Stephen C. Angle and Philip J. Ivanhoe, help to demystify Chinese thought for the Western reader by showing that Chinese thinkers were concerned with many of the same problems that preoccupied philosophers in the West. Whether or not we can regard such problems as universal, at the very least these studies call attention to...



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