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  • Whose Tradition? Which Dao? Confucius and Wittgenstein on Moral Learning and Reflection by James F. Peterman
  • Galia Patt-Shamir (bio)
Whose Tradition? Which Dao? Confucius and Wittgenstein on Moral Learning and Reflection. By James F. Peterman. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015. Pp. xx + 319. isbn 978-1-4384-5419-1.

Whose Tradition? Which Dao? Confucius and Wittgenstein on Moral Learning and Reflection by James F. Peterman addresses the valuable position that Confucius’ dao can and has to be understood within the useful framework of Wittgensteinian forms of life, their concrete language games, and the mastery of techniques and rule- following, and that Wittgenstein’s forms of life embody critical therapeutic interventions that can be better understood through Confucian ideas of moral practice and reflection, most significantly as the practice of ritual (禮 li ).

Placing Confucianism in a global philosophical context is necessary, since the self-sufficiency of Confucianism demands that it should be possible to have the Confucian message in discourse with other intellectual points of view. Wittgenstein’s ideas introduce a method of looking at texts as integral to human life, and demand that we reflect on the life that the texts represent. If his ideas about language games and forms of life are true, they should apply to particular traditions. Confucian moral practice and its significance in one’s reflection on life expands the understanding of forms of life. In this way Confucianism and Wittgensteinianism support each other. The dialogue between the two philosophies demands of us that we open ourselves to others in order to better understand their philosophies as well [End Page 288] as our own philosophical traditions. In the global context, this book serves as a reminder for researchers in the philosophical community that comparative work has great explanatory power.

The book is divided into nine chapters, through which Peterman, with a mastery of primary sources and extensive critical use of interpretive stands, weaves his argument that if the Confucian Analects lacks a systematic assessment, its approach to moral inquiry can be addressed by the later writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein, which then reflects back on Wittgenstein’s accounts of moral judgment. In chapter 1 Peterman addresses a range of potential problems that Confucian moral inquiry does not address. Chapter 2 takes up the problem of moral disagreement in a philosophy that avoids both organized epistemology and ontology. Applying the Wittgensteinian idea of “realistic spirit” (as introduced by Cora Diamond) Peterman suggests as a practicable solution Confucius’ idea of the master-disciple relationship as a guide to inherited practices and commitment.

Chapter 3 turns to the problem of meaning, especially the meaning of texts that belong to a form of life that is foreign to one’s own. Peterman criticizes the stances of Makeham, Creel, and Gardner as semantic nihilism and skepticism by addressing Wittgenstein’s principle of charity as implied in his famous understanding of “meaning as use” (Philosophical Investigations § 43). Chapter 4 takes up this criticism, offering a Confucian “interpretive charity” as it appears in practice and in reflection on the meaning of learned practices within a community of trained language users. Peterman focuses on a Confucian concept of truth, criticizing the pragmatic understandings (including those of Munro, Hansen, and Hall and Ames) that Confucianism is free from. Chapter 5 completes the argument with Peterman’s own pragmatism, assisted by Xiao Yang’s claim that Confucian dao as background norm presupposes a notion of truth.

Chapter 6 criticizes a metaphysical grounding for Confucianism as being in conflict with the Confucian realistic spirit, in particular as offered (according to Peterman) by the great Confucian synthesizer of the Song, Zhu Xi. Chapter 7 moves on to contemporary Confucianism through a critical account of Alasdair MacIntyre and Jiwei Ci, who see justified moral claims as necessarily presupposing a theoretical framework. Peterman turns back to Wittgenstein’s language games in order to separate truth from theory. In chapter 8 we read a long account of Herbert Fingarette’s suggestion concerning the “magical” aspect of ritual, which he sees as flawed (though helpful in assisting the Western ability to acknowledge ritual as necessary for moral life). Chapter 9 turns to Erving Goffman’s sociological account...


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