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  • From Practice to Theory:Sungmoon Kim on Confucian Democracy
  • Jeffrey Flynn (bio)

Sungmoon Kim’s Confucian Democracy in East Asia: Theory and Practice is a brilliant and engaging contribution to our understanding of democratic theory and practice.1 The title of my comment here emphasizes the innovative way in which Kim moves from practice to theory by relying on the vibrant Confucian civil society in South Korea as both the normative inspiration for and practical reflection of his model of Confucian democracy (p. 22). In the first section below, I highlight three interrelated ways in which Kim’s book is methodologically quite interesting and then pose some questions about the relation between theory and practice as framed by the book. In the second section, I turn to what I take to be one of the most innovative aspects of Kim’s approach: the central role played by Confucian civil society. Here I pose some questions about precisely how we should understand the distinctively Confucian nature of his model of Confucian democracy. For it seems to me there is a more general model of deliberative democracy in the book—one that stresses the need for a vibrant public sphere and an active civil society—and it might be helpful to clearly distinguish this from the Confucian conditions for its realization.

On Methodology

Methodological Pluralism

The first, and most general, point I want to make about Kim’s methodology regards the methodological pluralism displayed in the impressive variety of sources Kim draws on throughout the book. He announces what he calls his “methodological impurity” (p. ix) on the first page, asking whether his book’s not fitting neatly within one particular genre is a liability. He poses the question himself: is he a political philosopher, a political theorist, an intellectual historian, or a social critic? I don’t think this “methodological eclecticism” (p. ix) is a liability at all. The results speak for themselves: an incredibly rich book that deftly and deeply engages with a wide range of sources including traditional and contemporary Confucian thought, normative democratic theory, social-scientific literature on democratization and civil society, and social-psychological literature on contemporary Korean society. In many ways, Kim has provided a model study of how to think about realizing democracy within non-Western societies. This leads to a second point, about the ways in which Kim’s work reframes the compatibility debates. [End Page 1340]

Reframing the Compatibility Debates

Kim’s methodological pluralism allows him to avoid some of the stale dichotomies that often attend to questions about the compatibility between Western and non-Western ideas. In doing that, he makes a significant contribution to debates not only on how to conceive of Confucian democracy but also on how to think about such compatibility debates more generally. We are all familiar with these debates in some form or another. On one side is posited something Western—democracy, liberalism, human rights, individualism—and it is said to be incompatible with something non-Western—Asian Values, Islam in one or all of its many forms, or various traditional practices or communal ideals.

One reason methodological pluralism is helpful here is that philosophically minded inquirers have a tendency to frame the question of compatibility solely in terms of whether two sets of abstract ideas can be consistently combined.2 A healthy dose of historical insight into the multiple ways in which such ideas have been embodied and lived by real people—whether it be Confucianism in various times and places or a commitment to “human rights” in various times and places—can be helpful in dispelling the misconception that the sole aim of such discussions must be to reconcile purely abstract ideas. Likewise, empirical social science challenges us to come down from the heights of thinking about democracy in the abstract by telling us something about ongoing processes of democratization and current social realities. Indeed, at one point Kim points out that those who still challenge the “relevance of human rights in East Asia” have to contend with the “fact” that “rights discourse and rule of law have become integral parts of East Asian life” (p. 9).

In this way, Kim is able to engage...


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