- Reviewed by
Against Individualism: A Confucian Rethinking of the Foundations of Morality, Politics, Family, and Religion by Henry Rosemont Jr. is an important challenge to the dominant individualistic ethos of our age. It is not merely a critique of the idea of the rights-claiming, free and autonomous individual: Rosemont also puts forward a strong defense of an alternative idea of the relational person as role-bearing, interrelated, and necessarily responsible to other persons (the title may be a bit misleading because it suggests that the main point of the book is critical). I am generally sympathetic to Rosemont's view, but I think he goes too far in his defense of the role-bearing person.
The book has three parts. Chapters 1 and 2 are more specialized discussions of methodological issues in analytical and comparative philosophy. Given Rosemont's political concerns, he writes in clear and accessible language supported by examples from everyday life in other parts of the book, and the bulk of the opening chapters could perhaps have been relegated to appendixes; those who are not professional philosophers can just skip to chapter 3. The second part—chapters 3 to 5—critiques the dominant Western idea of the self as a free and autonomous individual separated from roles and communities. Chapter 3 argues that the individualist view of the self is descriptively false; chapter 4 argues that it leads to undesirable social and political consequences; and chapter 5 is a critique of its extreme libertarian manifestation in the United States. The third part of the book—chapters 6 to 10—is a positive argument in defense of the Confucian view that we should think of ourselves as ever-evolving, interrelated, role-bearing persons. Chapter 6 argues that the Confucian view is descriptively true, and Rosemont draws implications for family life (chapter 7), ritual (chapter 8), religion (chapter 9), and society and the world (chapter 10).
The three parts of the book could perhaps have been more clearly separated in the table of contents. I learned most from the third part, and I will confine my critical comments to what Rosemont says about the role-bearing person and how we should think about our moral obligations, ending with a few words about the relevance of political context for theorizing about the self and morality. [End Page 565]
Rosemont argues that "the view of human beings as most fundamentally free and rational, autonomous individual selves is almost certainly false" (p. xii) and that it has led to disastrous social consequences such as huge economic inequalities because its celebration and defense of freedom comes at the expense of social justice and peace. Instead, we should celebrate the Confucian idea "that human beings can only be understood relationally, never as isolates, and are thus best accounted for as the sum of the roles they live, with no remainder or consequence" (p. 4), both because it's the right way to think about the kinds of persons we are and because this conception of the person will lead to desirable political consequences if it becomes widely shared.
But there's something strange about distinguishing too strongly between a "false" conception of the autonomous self and the "true" account of the role-bearing person. Rosemont notes that "while Confucianism should be seen as fundamentally religious, there are no solitary monks, nuns, anchorites, anchoresses, or hermits to be found in the tradition. The way is made in the walking of it, but one never walks alone" (p. 96). Does this mean that other traditions with ideals of solitary individuals are false? Even Confucians might object, given that so many adherents of Confucian ethics (such as Liang Shuming) have also adopted the more individualistic ideas of the self in other traditions such as Buddhism during the course of their lives. Rosemont claims that "if all of morality is bound up with the performance of roles, it must follow that one's moral code cannot be...