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Reviewed by:
  • Rorty, Pragmatism, and Confucianism: With Responses by Richard Rorty
  • Joseph Harroff (bio)
Yong Huang , editor. Rorty, Pragmatism, and Confucianism: With Responses by Richard Rorty. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009. 332 pp. Hardcover $85.00, ISBN 978-0-7914-7683-3. Paperback $26.95, ISBN 978-0-7914-7684-0.

Presumably, Richard Rorty's brand of neo-pragmatism, which he considered to be a kind of critical "footnote" (2003, p. 6) to Dewey's perceived excesses of a metaphysical naturalism that posits historicized and socially constituted essences, would have little in common with a Confucian tradition, which makes a big deal out of realizing the "nature" (xing 性) of things in hopes of achieving a more harmonious and stable social order. Understandably, many people, whether sympathetic or not to the Confucian or Rortian style of doing philosophy, are inclined to consider a dialogue between the self-described postmodern bourgeois liberal and the conservative transmitter of the idealized way of Zhou dynasty ritual conduct as unlikely to yield much in way of substantial convergence. Rorty, who considers religion a "conversation stopper,"1 finds it hard to imagine how his thought could benefit by engaging with an a-theistic, though culturally conservative religious tradition.

The editor of this book believes, however, that "a Rortian Confucian is a better Confucian [and] a Confucian Rortian is a better Rortian" (p. 94). In this [End Page 201] spirit of mutual understanding, most of the contributions to this volume succeed in opening up a productive hermeneutic horizon wherein resonances between and possible transformations of neo-pragmatism and contemporary Confucian thought are manifest. While some of the more critical essays are overhasty in pigeonholing a philosopher who himself was highly suspicious of final vocabularies and systematic philosophizing, for the most part these essays succeed in bringing neopragmatism and Confucianism into productive cultural dialogue.

I will focus on three central and related issues to cast light on how Rorty's thought fuses and/or conflicts with Confucianism generally: (1) the role of human nature in relation to morality; (2) liberal democratic values such as freedom and equality versus deference to hierarchy based on virtuous character and conduct authorized by a living tradition; and (3) the issue of religiousness (or natural piety) in Confucianism and Rorty's apparent neo-Hegelian affirmation of exclusive humanism. Rorty states in the text under review, "My image of Nature is a vast silent waste through which the stars blindly run—Pascal's terrifyingly infinite spaces. I think of Nature as the antithesis of Spirit" (p. 295).

Most of the essays in this volume (with the exceptions of Cheng's, Allinson's, Miller's, and Clark's) are generally sympathetic to Rorty's style of philosophizing and overall project of moral edification. Traditional Confucians (since the Chinese never developed an epistemology that seeks eternal, static essences) are generally inclined toward a narrative style of philosophizing. The goal is always to achieve some kind of ethical transformation as opposed to providing a clear and systematic account about the nature of reality. This alone would seem to set Rorty up as an unquestionable ally in the task of revivifying Confucian thought and practice in the twenty-first century. We find slogans such as "Rorty without Confucius is empty; Confucius without Rorty is blind" (p. 32) and "a Rortian Confucian is a better Confucian [and] a Confucian Rortian is a better Rortian" (p. 94). However, almost all of the essays take issue with some aspect of Rorty's neo-pragmatism—usually focusing on worries over his so-called linguistic turn, which entails a rejection of Dewey's naturalistic metaphysics (pp. 124, 217). While some of the essays suggest that Confucians have something to learn from Rorty—for instance, they could be more "frankly ethnocentric" in their philosophic commitments and more avowedly anti-essentialist in their metaphysics (p. 127)—almost all contributors eagerly suggest that the Confucian tradition can serve as a palliative to Rortian excesses and deficiency.

Rorty's terse, but provocative, replies to each essay reveal the extent to which the father of neo-pragmatism considered his philosophical approach to be compatible with Confucianism in its various guises. Clearly, the Confucian tradition, probably...


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