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  • Reconstructionist Confucianism: Rethinking Morality after the West
  • Ronnie Littlejohn
Reconstructionist Confucianism: Rethinking Morality after the West. By Ruiping Fan. Philosophical Studies in Contemporary Culture. Dordrecht: Springer, 2010. Pp. v + 296.

In Reconstructionist Confucianism: Rethinking Morality after the West, Ruiping Fan's project is to address contemporary moral and public policy challenges by reclaiming and articulating resources from the Confucian tradition. He sets his effort over against both Western civil-libertarian democracies, which conceive of morality by agreement, and what he calls "Neo-Confucian" efforts made by Chinese philosophers. By "Neo-Confucian" he does not mean Zhu Xi and the lineage of commentators on his work, but rather what is perhaps more commonly known as the "New Confucianism" (i.e., the movement addressed by John Makeham and Umberto Bresciani1). Fan's critique throughout his book is directed consistently against Western philosophy, and when he sparingly targets specific New Confucians, he leaves no doubt that the deficiencies he finds in their approach rest on their strategy of reading Western concerns back into the Confucian tradition. He believes the "Neo-Confucians" colonize the Confucian heritage with Western notions of rights, egalitarianism, and justice. In general, throughout the work, Fan's views are provocative, although somewhat underdeveloped. The book was created from the "ancestral material" of a long list of past essays, which the author details in his "Acknowledgements." These essays are incorporated into the book with varying levels of success and coherence. Nevertheless, Fan's positions merit further critical engagement and appropriation.

Revisionist Confucianism is divided into four major sections. In the first section, Fan makes an argument for why it is that Confucian social and moral philosophy is in tension with Western concepts. He holds that Western social philosophy is founded on abstract and general principles, whereas Confucianism is defined by specific ritual rules that identify particular groundings leading to a virtuous life. Confucian rules for action gain their significance and force from specific fabrics of social relations most fully expressed in the notion of kinship or family love. In the forge of a properly harmonious Confucian family, Fan believes that we learn to treat persons appropriately as unequals and gain mastery of the push and pull of favoritism, creating a sort of [End Page 266] virtuous familism that is transferable to the society at large. According to the author, such a way of relating to others does not contradict rule of law, but actually constitutes the content of the Confucian rule of law. Within such a society, personhood is a virtue-based, not a rights-based notion. In the Confucian anti-egalitarian civil society, it is not the goal to treat persons as equals or to be careful never to infringe on their rights and thereby allow them maximal liberty of individualistic self-determination; instead, the goal is to treat persons as relatives. The virtues that give substance to such conduct are harmony (he 和), love (ren 仁), and respect (yi 義). For Fan, this trinity of virtues stands in radical contrast to the way in which he understands the values of the liberal democracy of the West, and some readers will find his characterizations of John Rawls arguable and not sufficiently nuanced. Likewise, some Confucian scholars will feel that Fan does not adequately acknowledge the rich diversity to be found in their long and complex tradition.

The author takes on the objection that Confucian tradition is not fit for the contemporary public sphere of national practice or global interaction. Fan believes the Confucian model is to view the nation and global community as a household drawing on the archetype of a traditional Chinese family that has brought many persons into its circle of influence. The author's understanding is that wherever Confucianism gains traction, it becomes the DNA for a "familist civil society." The remaining sections of the book represent Fan's sketching out of some of the fundamental tasks of such a society. The efforts to which he tentatively points are decidedly not a reproduction of any historical Chinese iteration, but a revisionist model informed by a critical analysis of "the failures of the past" (p. 40).

The second section of the book suggests applications of the Confucian approach...