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  • Confucian Pragmatism as the Art of Contextualizing Personal Experience and World
  • Marianna Benetatou (bio)
Haiming Wen. Confucian Pragmatism as the Art of Contextualizing Personal Experience and World. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009. 430 pp. Hardcover $85.00, isbn 978-0-7391-3644-7.

The publication of Haiming Wen's new book, Confucian Pragmatism as the Art of Contextualizing Personal Experience and World, is a major contribution to Confucian scholarship. Not withstanding the long title, the book brings an entirely fresh and promising new look to Confucian material. Inspired by the conceptual framework of American pragmatism, notably by the mental universe of John Dewey and William James, but also by Emerson and Whitehead, the author embarks on a pragmatic rereading of the basic Confucian texts and of the vast commentarial scholarship that accompanies them.

From the very start, the key concept that organizes the diverse material under investigation is creativity. In the first part of his book, Wen examines the history of creativity in Western philosophy. He discusses the shortcomings of the theory of creatio ex nihilo and concludes that creativity is a rather marginal and recent concept in Western philosophical tradition. Following in the path of American [End Page 572] pragmatic criticism, he contends that Western philosophy has developed neither a specific vocabulary nor a coherent theory of creation and creativity. Arguably, however, different concepts and theories have been formulated during the history of Western philosophy in order to express not only creativity but also the concomitant ideas of originality, novelty, innovation, and inspiration, as, for example, the Latin genius and its ancient Greek counterpart of demon.

The author's view, which implies that Western philosophy is more conservative than it pretends to be, is contrasted with the Confucian constellation of ideas expressing creatio in situ, or contextual creativity. In this perspective, individuals cocreate, as the author repeatedly advances, reality together with the current events through their actions. The second part of the book analyses in detail the Confucian meaning of concepts such as yi 意 (intention), qing 情 (feelings), thinking, and other important philosophical terms. They all point to a fundamental creative activity that enables individuals to participate actively in the cosmic process. In this view, every moment is not only unique but also absolutely new, innovative, and more or less willed by humans individually or collectively. Society and especially the family interact creatively when individuals, through their initiative, conform to traditional values and established social and political structures.

One of the many highlights of the book is the analysis of these terms. The author is not content with enriching them with new and current shades of meaning. He presents with the utmost thoroughness the related commentaries giving emphasis on the idealist views of Wang Yanming.

An interesting discussion can focus on the interpretation of traditional Confucian terms in the light of a modern vocabulary and twentieth-century intellectual Western trends. The author argues that creativity is not confined to the meaning of terms, as it is generally admitted, but actually qualifies all human actions. It is not only a semantic process of finding a new meaning; it is the very process that creates reality out of the string of voluntary, albeit socially correct, individual and communal actions as they interact with any given situation.

The question arises as to where this pervasive creativity leads and to what purpose. In a broad sense, it does not go further than concretizing intentions and bringing about the warp of experience. Experience is an incessant contextualizing of purposes in the broad frame of the world. From the point of view of practical significance, creativity harmonizes personal thinking and feeling with communal conventions.

The search for social approval and the need for continuation of traditional structures that can come to terms with personal creativity are particularly evident in the person of the sage. The sage interprets and influences the world so as to reinforce a way of life inherited by the sages.

For the Western reader, the third part of this book is, by far, the most interesting. It advances the idea of "Confucian pragmatism" as the convergence of the ideas of Confucius and those of the American pragmatists. In this perspective, the...