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  • Sagehood: The Contemporary Significance of Neo-Confucian Philosophy
  • Joseph Harroff (bio)
Stephen C. Angle . Sagehood: The Contemporary Significance of Neo-Confucian Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 293 pp. Hardcover $74.00, ISBN 978-0-19-538514-4.

"What happens if we to take Neo-Confucianism and its ideal of sagehood seriously as contemporary philosophy?" This question motivates Stephen Angle's most recent work in comparative philosophy. With an accomplished background in both sinology and Anglo-American philosophy, Angle provides an adept treatment of a large swath of contemporary issues in ethical and political philosophy. This book will be especially relevant for those working within or around the traditions of Neo-Confucianism and virtue ethics, but could prove to have an even wider appeal.

The author adopts a comparative methodology consisting of what he calls "rooted global philosophy" and "constructive engagement." Rooted global philosophy "means to work within a particular live philosophical tradition—thus its rootedness—but to do so in a way that is open to stimulus and insights from other philosophical traditions—thus its global nature" (p. 6). Constructive engagement "emphasizes that contemporary, live philosophical traditions can challenge and yet learn from one another," in such a way that requires the characteristic "vulnerability and flexibility of live traditions" (p. 7). By putting the traditions of Neo-Confucian and Western virtue ethics into constructive dialogue, a hermeneutic horizon opens up by which the fundamental presuppositions of each tradition are called into question without losing sight of its unique integrity.

While worrying at times about the extent to which any form of Confucian philosophy can still be a live option (especially for a Westerner committed to liberal democratic values), the author, for the most part, assumes that he can simultaneously take root as a Confucian philosopher and as an American virtue ethicist (8ff.). One might wish to take issue with this notion, interrogating the feasibility of facilely placing Neo-Confucian philosophy in intimate conversation with contemporary Western ethical theory. The Way Learning (daoxue 道学) movement, which began circa the Song dynasty (960-1279 C.E.) and which continues into the present (at least for those for whom this mode of Confucian [End Page 69] discourse offers itself up as a live tradition),1 is certainly not just a philosophical theory. Rather it is a holistic tradition incorporating a complex array of meanings that can be only artificially classified as epistemological, ontological, ethical, political, or religious, or by any other non-native conceptual schema. I will have more to say about this below in the discussion of virtue as a translation for de 德. Suffice it to say that the author is certainly aware of the uniqueness (or "rootedness") of the philosophical traditions between which he moves. However, the impression is that we can sometimes bracket the particular genealogies of texts in bringing them to bear on the elucidation and/or solution of abstract philosophical problems.

The book is divided into three sections: "Keywords," "Ethics and Psychology," and "Education and Politics." I will focus primarily on the first section, which grounds the entire comparative project. While some of my comments have critical import, I do not wish to question the importance of the text as a whole. It stands as a highly provocative and creative reading of Neo-Confucian philosophy in light of recent developments in Western virtue ethics.

The first section is concerned primarily with contextualizing four key terms of Neo-Confucian discourse, both within the tradition itself and in dialogue with contemporary ethical philosophy. Carrying out this task, the author is able both to familiarize the nonspecialist with the basic outlines of the Confucian tradition and alert readers to the possibility of fruitful interactions with particular strains of Western virtue ethics. The four key terms are "sage" (sheng 聖), "coherence" (li 理), "virtue" (de 德), and "harmony" (he 和).

While the mention of sages in contemporary circles may call to mind long white beards and mystical mountaintop experiences, the author does a good job of showing that the concept functions in Confucianism as a practical ideal of ethical cultivation within the familiar affairs of everyday living. Far from being an otherworldly or suprahuman goal, the ethical ideal of sagehood, for Confucians, is exemplified...


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