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Reviews 233 Heiner Roetz. Confucian Ethics ofthe AxialAge: A Reconstruction under theAspect ofthe Breakthrough toward Postconventional Thinking. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993. xiii, 373 pp. Hardcover $57.50, Paperback $18.95. This book does not veil its message. The author explicitly states he disagrees with certain modes of interpreting and evaluating pre-Qin thought, lays claims for the truth of his own reading of the same texts, and then uses his interpretation of the Chinese sources to endorse a broader, not culturally specific, and rather unfashionable view on ethics. Since nothing is left vague or unspoken, the book makes itselfvulnerable to easy counterattack; disagreement with one of the positions so tenaciously defended in the book might even tempt the reader to cast the book aside and read no further. On the other hand, it is precisely its outspokenness that might force the reader to define with more clarity his or her own positions on issues central to pre-Qin ethical debates. If we do not wish to endorse the author's views, we should at least take him seriously as a devil's advocate. The author takes issue with Hegel's assessment of Chinese ethical thought. According to Hegel—or Roetz' version of him—the Chinese were never able to transcend the level of Sittlichkeitfor that of Moralität. They were stuck in a heteronomous ethics of accommodation, unable to set aside their concrete attachments to society with its specific rituals, customs, and traditions. Thus they were prevented from seeing ethical norms as rational, universal, and thereby conducive to human autonomy and freedom. Roetz thinks Hegel's assessment was essentially taken over by Weber where he formulated his views on Confucianism, and that it also became part ofwhat he calls the "neo-pragmatist and contextualistic discourse " within the United States. Under the latter heading, he subsumes late twentieth-century authors such as Fingarette, Hall and Ames, Rosemont, Hansen, and Maclntyre. According to Roetz, the major difference between Hegel and Weber on the one hand and the North-American philosophers on the other is that the former view Chinese ethical thinking as inherently defective, while the latter, writing at a time when Western society is in crisis, view Chinese thinkers' attachment to their concrete traditions as a positive asset. Roetz disagrees with both sides and on two accounts. Firstly, he points to many passages in pre-Qin philosophical literature where authors detach themselves from their society to offer incisive and sustained criticism of the established© 1QQ4 bv Un'vers'tv customs °f their time. Many of the passages that he thus presents from the vast ofHawai'i Pressdomain ofpre-Qin philosophical literature—occasionally Han examples are invoked as well—are extremely interesting and often go beyond the standard stock of quotations in secondary literature on the subject. Supporting Roetz' critique, 234 China Review International: Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall 1994 the quotations indeed obviate a too facile identification of being moral with carrying out what is prescribed by one's role in society, and they definitely need to be accounted for in any serious discussion of ethical values in ancient China. Second, Roetz points out the bad consequences that might follow from a philosophical position that advocates an uncritical return to tradition. He claims that such a position , if it had ever existed in China, would preclude all attempts to distinguish between good and bad aspects of the tradition in which its advocate is located, and would be forced to accept and support such things as foot-binding, slavery, and Nazism. Since it is an impossible position to hold, it would be almost unethical to ascribe such a view to the Chinese. Roetz calls his work with the texts of ancient China a work of "reconstruction ," and he defines this task, in one of the most revealing sentences of the whole book, as "to reorganize the ideas of the ancients in a form which is more appropriate to their true intentions, than are their quite unsystematic and often unclear arguments, and to make the best of them in the light of the ethical problems of our time" (p. 6). Such a view of reading texts has two consequences...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-9367
Print ISSN
1069-5834
Pages
pp. 233-237
Launched on MUSE
2011-03-30
Open Access
No
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