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  • Confucian Propriety and Ritual Learning: A Philosophical Interpretation by Geir Sigurðsson
  • Paul J. D'Ambrosio (bio)
Confucian Propriety and Ritual Learning: A Philosophical Interpretation. By Geir Sigurðsson Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015 Pp. 1 + 178. Hardcover $75.00, isbn 13 9-781438-454412.

In his most recent book, Against Individualism: A Confucian Rethinking of the Foundations of Morality, Politics, Family, and Religion (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015), Henry Rosemont defends against those who would call his reading of Confucianism—he sees it as a type of Role Ethics—a misinterpretation. Rosemont contends that Confucian Role Ethics is important for challenging individualism, even if it is somehow unfaithful to pre-Qin texts. He writes that he could "simply re-title" his book "Role Ethics: A Different Approach to Moral Philosophy Based on a Creative Misreading of Early Confucian Writings" (Rosemont, p. 9). In Confucian Propriety [End Page 571] and Ritual Learning: A Philosophical Interpretation, Geir Sigurðsson similarly defines his own work as "a modest contribution to the ongoing reinterpretation of Confucianism … presenting a creative interpretation of the Confucian li … with an eye to working out its possible meaning and application in the twenty-first century" (p. 17). Sigurðsson is thereby part of a contemporary movement to use Confucian texts to do philosophy, as opposed to reading Confucianism as philosophy. In other words, Sigurðsson, like Roger Ames, Henry Rosemont, Li Zehou 李澤厚, Chen Lai 陳來, Yang Guorong 楊國榮, and others, seeks to make use of Confucian insights to deal with today's problems.

Tackling li 禮, which is commonly translated as "ritual," is, as Sigurðsson notes, a "test" of the "weakest link in the Confucian chain" (p. 9). Li is, "in both Asian and non-Asian eyes" often "viewed with skepticism and suspicion as belonging to the archaic order of the past" (p. 9). However, li is also explained in the Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 through the related character li or 履, meaning "footwear," or, as Sigurðsson notes, to "tread," "perform," or "carry out" (p. 12). In this sense it contributes to what it means to be human by providing a guideline for socialization and finding one's proper place. Sigurðsson's study of li is broken down into three chapters that he calls "assemblages," a term borrowed from Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead defines an "assemblage" as an unending process where "All that can be achieved is the emphasis on a few large scale notions, together with the attention to the variety of other ideas which arise in the display of those chosen for primary emphasis" (as quoted in Sigurðsson, p. 8).

The first assemblage is split into two parts, beginning with the notion of tradition and then moving on to timing. Sigurðsson offers dao 道 as a possible translation for the English term "tradition," which is explained with reference to the modern Chinese chuan-tong 傳統, or "handing down of the essentials (of a culture) to posterity" (p. 20). Dao is then, in turn, defined as an active "leading through," which is summarized with the phrase "leading forth of what is essential" (p. 30). After giving a relatively short argument for such a radical reading of dao, Sigurðsson immediately begins associating dao and tradition with one another. The strength of this translation becomes apparent not so much in his brief explanation of what similarities there may be between the two terms, but rather in the way he shows how they can be interchanged. By the end of the book their parallel functions become quite apparent, and readers may find that Sigurðsson's demonstrations of the interchangeability of "dao" and "tradition" reframe the way they interpret early Chinese philosophy. For example, his suggestion is quite convincing in Analects 1.12: "Master You said: 'Achieving harmony (he 和) is the most valuable function of li [ritual]. In the tradition (dao 道) initiated by former kinds, this produced elegance and both small and great affairs proceeded from there'" (p. 102).

In the second half of the first chapter Sigurðsson deals with time and timing, which are quite common topics in Chinese literature on Chinese philosophy, but not talked about as much in English-language scholarship. Here...


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