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Reviewed by:
  • Boston Confucianism: Portable Tradition in the Late-Modern World
  • Bryan W. Van Norden
Boston Confucianism: Portable Tradition in the Late-Modern World. By Robert Cummings Neville. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000. Pp. xxxv + 258.

At an international conference in 1991, people began to refer to Robert Neville and his colleagues as "Boston Confucians." At first the phrase was used as affectionate teasing and tongue-in-cheek self-description. However, Neville reports that, by the end of the conference, the phrase "Boston Confucianism" had come to be used as a semi-serious label for a particular view: the position that "Confucianism is not limited to East Asian ethnic application" and that it "has something genuinely interesting and helpful to bring to contemporary philosophical discussions" (p. 1). Neville's book, Boston Confucianism: Portable Tradition in the Late-Modern World, is a defense of these claims.

In the process of defending his theses, Neville makes a number of points that I think are utterly incontrovertible. I shall note five of his insights. The first three I shall just mention, but then I shall proceed to two that are particularly worthy of more extensive discussion. First, one need not be ethnically East Asian to be a Confucian. To deny this claim is as absurd as suggesting that one must be Greek in order to be a Platonist or an Aristotelian (p. xxii). Second, in order to be a viable, contemporary "world philosophy," Confucianism must have (and has yet to develop) ways to accommodate cultural diversity and pluralism in practice. Third, Confucianism must show that it is not inconsistent with the insights of modern science. (This is particularly an issue if, like Neville, one is attracted to the more metaphysically baroque forms of Confucianism that developed in the Song and later dynasties.)

Neville's fourth insight is that the Confucian notion of "ritual" is a category that could significantly deepen and broaden Western philosophical discussions. Neville suggests that the semiotic work of the American pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce provides a useful framework for understanding and enriching the Confucian emphasis on ritual. Neville's comments on Peirce are suggestive, but I wonder what Neville would say about the "functionalist" approach to ritual pioneered by Emile Durkheim. Durkheim argued, in works such as The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, that participation in ritual activities functions to express and (more importantly) maintain the individual's commitment to society.1 Several commentators, including A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (who independently developed an approach to ritual similar to that of Durkheim) and more recently Robert F. Campany, have noted that this sort of functionalist interpretation of ritual is quite similar to that advanced by Xunzi more than 2,500 years ago.2 Functionalism helps us to understand (in naturalistic terms) why ritual is so important, why it is perfectly acceptable for it to take different forms in different societies, and why the decay of ritual leads to excessive individualism and, in Durkheim's phrase, "anomie." As far as I can see, all of this is at least consistent [End Page 413] with what Neville says about ritual, but I would be interested to know whether he thinks functionalism adds anything to a Peircean construal of Confucian ritual.

Finally, Neville presents an insightful critique of the positions developed by David Hall and Roger Ames in their trilogy of books.3 It is worth spending some time on Neville's critique, since Roger Ames and the late David Hall are so well known and have been such influential figures in contemporary comparative thought. Neville objects that "their method of contrasting cultures by generalizing to basic principles and trivializing exceptions follows the Western . . . strategy of developing a grid of categories . . . and locating thinkers and cultures within them. . . . This is surely an imposition of categories from without to the neglect of the concrete, a matter they ironically would consign to the West" (p. 49). Another way of putting this point is that Hall and Ames strongly oppose what they see as the dualistic tendencies in the Western tradition, and applaud the nondualistic tendencies in the Chinese tradition. However, they do so using a sort of "methodological dualism," which sharply distinguishes...