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  • Response to Bryan W. Van Norden's Review of Boston Confucianism
  • Robert Cummings Neville

Professor Van Norden's gracious claim that much of my point in Boston Confucianism was already known and accepted in his graduate school somehow makes me feel the way the Chinese emperor must have felt when he stood in the doorway looking south and the empire just fell into order. Whew! [End Page 417]

If Boston Confucianism is nothing but New Wave Confucianism to the minds of some American scholars, it was new news to the Chinese when I lectured about it in Xian, Urumqi, and Beijing last year. One of the things that intrigued them was that, whereas they were accustomed to hearing Confucianism discussed and advocated by scholars of history, I spoke as a philosopher. Boston Confucianism is a book of contemporary philosophy, arguing about how to take Confucian resources for a viable philosophic approach to issues today. I am not a sinologist or a history scholar, and I am not "a Biblical exegete, theologian, or historian of religion," as Van Norden accuses Tu Wei-ming of also not being (actually, I am a philosophical theologian, but not the kind of historical theologian he most likely means). A principal thesis of Boston Confucianism is that enough scholarly work has been done for the non-scholarly but genuinely philosophical public to put Confucianism into play within constructive philosophy, and it lays out some directions for that construction. Although Van Norden agrees with me that you don't have to be East Asian to be a Confucian, I wonder whether he also agrees that you don't have to be a historian or sinologist to be a Confucian philosopher? Certainly you don't have to read Plato in Greek to develop Platonic ideas in your philosophy, for instance as Whitehead did; he got his knowledge of Plato from his neighbor, A. E. Taylor.

As to Van Norden's claim that Tu Wei-ming is the Confucian equivalent of "a serious, sincere Christian evangelist, one who is charming in personal presence and delightful and effective as a public speaker," I must say that as the dean of a Christian theological seminary I take that to be a high compliment. But because Tu and his colleagues might take that as a put-down, permit me to give an alternative characterization of his work.

Tu Wei-ming is probably the leading Confucian intellectual to work in practical arts such as law and politics in the milieu of contemporary social scientists, philosophers, theologians, and thinkers who otherwise have little knowledge of or interest in Confucianism. Tu is not a mean sinologist-his book on the Chung Yung has gone through two editions, and his classes both in Chinese and in English draw students from many academic institutions in the Boston area. Nevertheless, the focus of his work is not writing for those who are Confucian scholars such as Bryan Van Norden, and he has not attempted to be an East Coast version of David Nivison, who is a scholar's scholar. Rather, he has engaged the great issues of our day in politics, philosophy, and religion, just as many of the great Confucians did in the past, and for a public consisting of people engaging these same issues from other traditions. Whereas Confucian scholars have often been preoccupied with Confucian history and identity-and Tu is not entirely free of this-Tu's main energies have been devoted to engaging the issues of our time through focusing on the Enlightenment project, creating a conversation about that here and abroad, and developing a form of contemporary Confucian discourse. The future of Confucianism will be determined as much if not more by those who use it in contemporary engagement with the broad intellectual world than by those who study it for itself. Tu is likely to be the foremost innovator in Confucian philosophy of our generation; he will almost certainly be that if he agrees with my gentle criticisms, such as that he value Xunzi [End Page 418] more highly, come to terms with the obdurateness of alienation that Christians know as sin, and rescue filial piety from a social situation in...