Confucianism and American Philosophy by Matthew A. Foust
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 to be, Foust then makes the relatively novel claim that James's position is ultimately more consistent with Xunzi's position than that of Mencius. While this chapter was the shortest of the five, I thought it was also the most interesting of them, and I found myself wishing the author had developed its subject matter further. Nonetheless, as with the introduction, it is worth seeking the book out even for this chapter alone, although its significance is better understood within the context of the book as a whole.
Finally, in the fifth and final chapter, Foust turns his attention, not—as one might expect—to Dewey, but rather to Royce. As he notes, comparative connections between Dewey and Confucian thought already abound, so in focusing on Royce, Foust remains true to his purpose of drawing out new and often overlooked points of convergence. Certainly the attention to Royce is [End Page 80] welcome, although this chapter is arguably the most strained of the five. Foust draws connections between the accounts of shame and atonement in Royce and Confucius (and, again, in some cases, Mencius). While the comparisons concerning shame are well taken, those concerning atonement are more questionable—the author's insistence on the secular relevance of that term notwithstanding. Ultimately, atonement does not appear to have sufficient purchase in Confucian texts to reveal more than it conceals when considered through a comparative lens.
It appears to be intrinsic to Foust's comparative method that not all chapters will appeal equally to all readers. As he notes in his conclusion, what is of greatest interest to one scholar may be of only passing interest to another, just as what one may fear conceals more than it reveals, another scholar may find as a springboard for further investigation. This is not to say that the value of any comparison is merely relative, or that no damage can be done by ill-conceived comparisons. However, each of the connections suggested by Foust is sufficiently well grounded in the resources of each tradition that it is worthy of serious scholarly consideration, whatever one's ultimate assessment of its value.
If I were to push the author a little, I would ask him to specify further what he means by a "point of convergence" between two traditions. To speak of a "point" of convergence only indicates that the traditions have been brought into connection with one another, saying little about how significant or how extensive that connection is. For example, while Foust makes a convincing case that something like the four methods of fixing doubt described in Peirce can be found in the Analects, it is also clear that fixing doubt was not one of Confucius's primary concerns in the same way that it was for Peirce. Consistent with this, it would have been helpful to have some further consideration, upon having established the point of convergence, of its implications for one's understanding of either tradition or of the issue under consideration. But then perhaps Foust's intent is not to answer such questions but only to have opened up new pathways for inquiry; and perhaps that is enough, at least for one book (although I look forward to seeing what he will accomplish in the next).
Ultimately, Foust's book succeeds masterfully in its stated task: proposing five new points of convergence between Confucianism and American philosophy. The book not only increases our understanding of each tradition relative to the other; it also significantly broadens the discussion to include less-often-included representatives of American philosophy. Furthermore, it does all of this with a methodological self-awareness that characterizes the very best of comparative philosophy. I would recommend it to anyone interested in classical American philosophy, classical Confucianism, or comparative philosophy. [End Page 81]