- Early Confucius Ethics: Concepts and Arguments
Author Kim-chong Chong is an associate dean of humanities and social science and professor in the Division of Humanities at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He was formerly the head of the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He earned a bachelor of arts at the University of Singapore and a doctorate in philosophy from the University of London. According to his curriculum vitae available at the HKUST web site, his research interests are ethics, comparative philosophy, early Confucianism, and Zhuangzi. He has penned two books, Moral Agoraphobia (1996) and the book reviewed here, Early Confucian Ethics (2007); edited or coedited four books, and written a number of essays that have been published in books and academic journals.1
With Early Confucian Ethics, Chong has given us an insightful examination of the three heavyweights of early Confucianism: Confucius or Kong Fuzi 孔夫子, Mencius or Mengzi 孟子, and Xunzi 荀子 Chong juxtaposes the three, but shows how traditional comparisons have often come at the expense of a clear understanding of any one of the respective philosophies. Most notably, Confucius's and Xunzi's philosophies have been distorted by reading them in, or should it be said on, Mencius's terms. This is surely the case with Confucius as regards ren 仁 which Chong claims is best translated as "humanity" for Confucius,2 and with Xunzi as regards xing 性 usually rendered as "human nature".
Chong seeks to disabuse the perception that the philosophies of Confucius (of the Analects), Mencius, and Xunzi lack coherence and cogent argumentation and cannot each be accepted in its own right. Scrutiny over the coherence of the Analects or Lun Yu 論語 of Confucius has increased so much that now it is widely [End Page 394] thought that the book has been modified down through the ages, moreover, in accordance with the modus operandi of different ruling regimes. Additionally, Confucius's "profound disinterest in metaphysical questions"3 has made his thought unusual, if not anathema, to many scholars of philosophy in the Anglo-European tradition. Mencius, whose eponymously titled book is one of the four traditional Confucian classics itself, is considered in some quarters to have been particularly influenced by the Confucian classic Zhong Yong 中庸, widely known as The Doctrine of the Mean, whereas Xunzi is thought by some to have been primarily influenced by the Confucian classic The Great Learning or Da Xue 大學 4 In turn, Mencius can be seen as having developed an ad hoc metaphysics of sorts, the defense of which gave way to mere rhetoric, and Xunzi is often viewed as merely specifying a philosophical lexicon. These are concerns Chong meets head-on.
Early Confucian Ethics is short. The eight chapters of the book total fewer than 126 pages. However, do not be misled by its compactness. This is not the quick read it may appear to be. Although you need not be an expert in the area to digest this dense book, you do need a working knowledge of the area to appreciate and peruse it in a timely manner. As such, it is not for the lay reader and really not for the undergraduate. This book is ideal for a graduate course on Confucianism. It could be used as a standalone piece in two or three weeks, or it could be stretched out over a semester, functioning as the centerpiece of a seminar.
The book is prefaced by acknowledgments and an introduction and comprises eight chapters, with thoroughgoing notes totaling forty pages, a solid ten-page bibliography, and an inadequate five-page index that, based on both its incompleteness and excessively embedded organization, I found, more often than not, unhelpful.5 On the other hand, the acknowledgments, unlike is often the case, are a must-read. From it, the reader learns that chapters 1 and 3 are, respectively, based on and very similar to two previously published essays by Chong, and chapters 2, 5, and 6 originally...