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  • In Defense of a Conception of Confucian Harmony
  • Chenyang Li (bio)

It is a great honor to have colleagues engaging in a meaningful discussion of my book. I appreciate my critics’ thoughtful and constructive criticisms as well as exceedingly generous praises. Due to space limitations, I will confine my response to some key issues raised here.

I will begin with Yao Xinzhong’s criticism of my claim and argument on the centrality of harmony in Confucian philosophy. Yao reads my view as being that harmony is the central concept or ideal in Confucian philosophy, which I take to mean that harmony has been the central concept or ideal in Confucian philosophy up to this point. Understood this way, that is not my argument in the book. My claims in the book are more moderate: in Confucian philosophy, harmony is “a central ideal,” “a social and moral ideal” (p. 7),1 “a central concept” (p. 20), “one of the most important concepts” (p. 18), and that “as a comprehensive philosophy, Confucianism is incomplete without harmony among its central concepts” (p. 20). I also state, “It is more appropriate to say that ren, ritual propriety, and harmony are all central concepts of Confucian philosophy” (p. 19). I come close to the position that Yao takes me to hold when I state, “If there is such a thing as ‘the most important concept in Confucianism,’ it has to be harmony” (p. 18). There is no contradiction here, however, because the latter is a conditional statement (that ‘if A then B’ leaves open that ‘not A & not B’), and it is compatible with other statements cited here.

A main purpose of the book is to restore harmony’s rightful place among the central concepts of Confucian philosophy, not to use it to replace all others. Yao accepts my claim that the Analects and the Mencius did not make the official list of “Confucian” (Rujia) classics until the Tang dynasty, but he objects that “few readers could imagine a Confucian philosophy without Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi.” I do not think my account implies that we should study Confucian philosophy without Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi. It only implies that these texts did not gain [End Page 256] prominence in the tradition until later (around the ninth century c.e.) and we should respect the history of the philosophical tradition when we interpret it. I differentiate “Confucius’ philosophy” on the one hand and “Rujia philosophy” (儒家哲学) (which has unfortunately been labeled “Confucian philosophy” or “Confucianism” in the West) on the other. If we trace the Rujia tradition to Duke Zhou (周公) (eleventh century b.c.e.), we must accept the fact that the Analects and the Mencius did not make it into the Rujia canons in the first two millennia of the tradition, and we must take that into account in interpreting Rujia philosophy as a whole. While ren 仁 occupies a central place in the Analects and the Mencius, it is not the case in the Book of Change (Yijing or Zhouyi). In reading the central theme of the Yijing, I follow the respected Yijing scholar Yu Dunkang, who holds explicitly that “the core idea of the Zhouyi is to pursue grand harmony as the highest goal” (Yu 2006, p. 5).

Yao suggests that perhaps a case can be made that harmony is the most important concept but not the most important virtue, whereas ren and yi are the most important virtues but not the most important concepts in Confucian philosophy. He then points out the difficulty of distinguishing concept from virtue as virtue concepts are nevertheless concepts. While I can appreciate the potential usefulness of such a move, my main point is that ren and yi mainly concern personal qualities whereas harmony is a comprehensive concept in Confucian philosophy, encompassing the whole realm of philosophy from personal ethics to social philosophy to metaphysics. (For discussions of Confucian metaphysics, see Li and Perkins 2015, particularly the chapters by Michael Puett and Brook Ziporyn, respectively.) Focusing on ren and yi without making harmony a central concept would restrict Confucian philosophy to ethics and social philosophy. It is troubling to claim that the central concept of Confucian philosophy is mainly about...


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