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  • Rorty, Pragmatism, and Confucianism
  • Andrew Lambert
Rorty, Pragmatism, and Confucianism. Edited by Yong Huang. New York: State University of New York Press, 2009. Pp. xviii + 324. Hardcover $85.00.

Rorty, Pragmatism, and Confucianism, a collection of twelve essays on the work of Richard Rorty and its relation to Confucian thought, arose out of a conference in Shanghai in 2004, where participants were granted access to several of Rorty’s unpublished manuscripts.

In his introduction, the editor Yong Huang states his desire to outline areas of shared interest in Rortian and Confucian thought. He notes, for example, the similarities between Rorty’s view that sentiment is “central to the moral consciousness” (p. 2) and the early Confucian tradition’s stress on the enhancement and appropriate directing of feeling; in Rorty’s words, a more moral world is best created by telling a “long, sad, sentimental story” about other people (p. 4). Apparent tensions between the two are also to be addressed. For example, while Rorty views “the demands of self-creation and human solidarity as equally valid, yet forever incommensurable” (quoted by Huang, p. 9), Confucian commentators often insist on the complementarity of the individual and community.

The papers are grouped into four sections, outlined below, followed by a twenty-page section in which Rorty replies individually to each contributor, and an extensive glossary of Chinese terms. I will proceed by sketching some of the main arguments from each section and Rorty’s replies to them, and will reserve my own critical comments for the end.

The first section, “Relativity, Contingency, and Moral Progress,” considers the ways in which both Rorty’s work and Confucianism might be considered relativist. As Huang notes (p. 73), Rorty has been labeled a relativist primarily because of his claims about contingency, yet Rorty denies that “every view is as good as every other” (quoted in Huang, p. 74). The essays by Kuang-ming Wu, Chung-ying Cheng, and Yong Huang consider whether relativism is problematic and, if so, how Rorty might refute the relativist charge.

Wu believes that both Rorty and Confucius are, in fact, relativists but proceeds to state the attractions of relativism. Properly understood, it is a “relentless pursuit of insights” that “relentlessly opens to every linkage” (p. 21). Further, Rorty and Confucius can use the other to enhance their own relativistic approaches: Rorty’s relativism [End Page 134] is too abstract, while Confucius’ epigrammatic storytelling is too chaotic and would benefit from the kind of order inherent in Rorty’s account (p. 37).

Cheng discusses Rorty’s use of contingency. At the risk of simplifying a wide-ranging discussion, two arguments deserve special note. First, Cheng explores what he believes are tacit essentialist assumptions underpinning Rorty’s presentation of contingency. Though Rorty believes the current emphasis on being sensitive to cruelty is simply the product of contingent historical events, Cheng claims that such sensitivity points to an essentialist truth: “From the Confucian perspective, this is a revelation of some capacity in a human person we may call human nature: ren (benevolence, co-humanity, interhumanity)” (p. 47). Second, Cheng argues that Rorty’s claims about the contingency of language, self, and community are in fact founded on incomplete analyses of these phenomena. For example, Rorty stresses the expressivist function of language in private self-creation on the model of Nietzsche or the romantic poets. But this, Cheng argues, is only one function of language; properly understood, language is inherently social. It “reflects the commonly shared creative and cognitive abilities of oneself and others, which eventually would present a vision of the moral community as a critical guiding principle for individual or group action” (p. 67). And in attributing to Confucianism just this view of language, self, and society, Cheng claims that Confucian thought can function as a critique of, or corrective to, Rorty’s relativism.

Huang focuses on Rorty’s recent work on progress and hope. These, Rorty claims, are incompatible with the relativist dictum that “every view is as good as any every other” (p. 74). Huang sees a common approach here with Confucianism, since both hold that “moral progress is the expansion of the circle of those who can...


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