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  • Confucianism and American Philosophy by Matthew A. Foust
  • Robert Smid
Confucianism and American Philosophy. Mathew A. Foust. Albany: SUNY Press, 2017. 194 pp. $80 cloth; $20.95 paperback.

What new points of connection can be forged between two traditions that will either enable us to learn more about one or the other tradition or enable us better to address the concerns underlying those connections when armed with the resources of both traditions? This is the main, underlying question of Foust's new book, Confucianism and American Philosophy. The perceived quality of his several answers to this question will likely depend on the comparative method that one takes into the pages of the book. Fortunately, Foust offers an explicit, well-informed, and carefully considered account of his own method in the introduction to the book. Indeed, the book is worth reading on the strength of that introduction alone, as it is still uncommon for comparative texts to be so forthright and thoughtful in their consideration of methodology.

While Foust demonstrates an impressively broad array of comparative influences (as a quick review of his acknowledgments will reveal), his method is perhaps best understood as a hybrid between Stephen Angle's "rooted global philosophy" and "constructive engagement," on the one hand, and Robert Neville's "Boston Confucianism," on the other. Both of these approaches seek to bring the resources from one tradition into conversation with another in order to address more productively the traditions' overlapping concerns (although the directionality in Foust's own work is not always as clear). What makes Foust's work particularly noteworthy is his drive to press comparative philosophy forward by introducing new "potentially fruitful points of convergence" (12) between traditions that open up new avenues for comparative consideration.

The first two chapters of the book focus on one of the signal contributions of the book: namely, bringing American Transcendentalism into comparative consideration with Confucian philosophy. As Foust notes, comparisons between Confucianism and American philosophy typically focus on pragmatism and process philosophy, and he offers these chapters as an attempt to broaden that discussion. The first chapter, for example, explores themes of friendship in Emerson and Confucius, tracing the history of Emerson's changing relationship [End Page 79] with the account of friendship the he finds in the Analects and arguing that, while Emerson initially establishes his position in contrast to Confucius, the later Emerson appears to have moved toward a position similar to the one described in the Analects.

Similarly, chapter 2 identifies a link between Thoreau and Confucius (and, to some extent, Mencius) on the issue of civil disobedience. Here, the task is somewhat more challenging, as Thoreau is generally taken to have read Confucius through a decidedly un-Confucian lens. Foust challenges this account, arguing that, while Thoreau may have misread Confucianism to some degree, Thoreau's interpreters may have done the same to him. This can be corrected, he maintains, by balancing the more typical focus of comparison on Walden to the less often considered essay on "civil disobedience," which was written during the same period in which his interest in Confucianism was most pronounced. Foust argues that, while Thoreau framed his position in opposition to Confucius, his position was more Confucian than perhaps even he realized.

The remaining three chapters shift their focus toward more traditional comparative themes. These chapters focus on the classical American pragmatists as they shift from documentation and analysis of historical influences to unintended points of convergence between classical Pragmatist and Confucian commitments. Chapter 3 argues that Peirce's arguments concerning the relative merits of various methods for fixing belief resonate with Confucius's own approach to inquiry. The latter's embrace of ongoing inquiry and readiness for self-correction, Foust argues, is not only in the spirit of Peirce's rendition of the scientific method; Confucius also regularly rejects approaches to inquiry that resemble the other three with which Peirce takes issue.

The fourth chapter focuses on James, reframing his reflections on human nature in the context of the differences between Mencius and Xunzi on that issue. After noting that the latter two are not as much at odds on the issue as they are often taken...


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