- Learning from Chinese Philosophies: Ethics of Interdependent and Contextualised Self
Karyn Lai is part of an emerging group of scholars who are reinvigorating Confucianism and Daosim by bringing these systems of thought into dialogue with contemporary global issues. Lai's ideas are clearly expressed and organized in such a way that makes her writing a pleasure to read. In this review I will provide an outline of her major arguments, followed with a few critical reflections on her approach and on the larger endeavor of proving Chinese thought globally significant.
Lai begins Learning from Chinese Philosophies by stating her thesis on page 1: "In this book, I seek to elucidate and relate conceptions of moral cultivation, self and community within Confucian and Daoist philosophies in order to furnish a fuller picture of what Chinese philosophy has to offer to contemporary understanding in these topic areas. I also set out the argument that the Confucian and Daoist traditions provide insights of continuing value, particularly in their distinctive ways of thinking about self-realisation, ethics and the human condition." The book then follows this general thesis in its two-part division—"Reviewing the Old" and "Realising the New." Four chapters are devoted to each segment.
In chapter 1, "Self and Society in Confucian Thought," Lai demonstrates how Confucianism (represented primarily by the Analects and Xunzi not only in this [End Page 494] chapter, but throughout the entire book) "shatter[s] the dichotomy between self and society" (p. 30). In short this means that the process of self-cultivation is ultimately an interconnected process whereby the cultivation of the self cannot occur without the concurrent cultivation of all others involved in society. Thus cultivation occurs simultaneously and dynamically on the micro-scale of the individual and the macro-scale of the collective unit (perhaps following the process laid out in the Great Learning). Borrowing occasionally from the work of David Hall and Roger Ames, Lai describes the Confucian notion of self-cultivation as a "process-oriented approach" dedicated not to simply identifying the norms, but engaging them in "living" terms (p. 36).
Throughout Learning from Chinese Philosophies, Lai uses the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi to articulate a Daoist position. Chapter 2 is titled "The Situated Self in Daoist Philosophy"; here, Lai discusses the Daoist self as "interdependent and contextualized" (p. 47). After brief reviews of Hall and Ames' field-focus framework (p. 42) and Chad Hansen's linguistic skepticism (p. 44), Lai concludes that in Daoism, "right or wrong can only be ascertained according to where and how each individual stands within its environment" (p. 48). This differs from Confucianism in as much as Confucianism attempts to tie itself with tradition, resulting in the "inability of the Confucians to move beyond the immediate situation to think about the human condition and its priorities" (p. 57). This begins Lai's "novel approach" of articulating similar themes of each tradition and putting them into contemporary dialogue with each other (p. 9).
Chapter 3, "Elements of Confucian Moral Thinking," turns the discourse back to Confucianism. In this chapter Lai reads the Analects as a "manual for moral decision-making" (p. 61) and teases out the dynamic interplay between ren 仁 and li 禮 "In the Analects, nei-wai [內外] philosophy is nested in the incipient tension between the concepts ren and li. As a concept designating the distinctive and universal trait of humanity, ren became the main protagonist for inner morality. The concept li, which referred to norms of social ritual and interaction, was alluded to in support of an externally imposed morality" (p. 60). The notion of yi 義 serves to mitigate the tension between ren and li, where yi judges the appropriate modification of li (p. 76).
In the fourth chapter, "Daoist Meta-ethics: Frameworks and Approaches," Lai shows that Daoist thought "supports an approach to moral philosophy that recognises individuals as interdependent and situated, yet spontaneous (ziran [自然])" (p. 96). The tension between the situated yet spontaneous self is worked out as "[e]ach...