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Reviewed by:
  • Confucianism for the Contemporary World: Global Order, Politial Plurality, and Social Action ed. by Tze-ki Ton and Kristin Stapleton
  • Bin Song (bio)
Confucianism for the Contemporary World: Global Order, Politial Plurality, and Social Action. Edited by Tze-ki Ton and Kristin Stapleton. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2017. Pp. xxix + 273. Hardcover $85.00, isbn 978-1-4384-6651-4

This edited volume consists of papers reflecting upon the significance of the contemporary revival of Confucianism for aspects of the global order such as capitalism, Asian modernity, liberal democracy, civil society, and mass media consumption. Read as a whole, the volume neither advocates a particular interpretation of Confucian thought, nor claims the efficacy of Confucianism in resolving human predicaments. Instead, it conceptualizes the Confucian revival as primarily an on-going social phenomenon and tries to analyze its broader impacts beyond the framework of the three epochs of Confucian intellectual history (classical Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism, and contemporary New Confucianism). While immensely appreciating the objectivity of this volume's editorship, my review of it in the following will respond to its varying chapters from the perspective of a Ru (Confucian) scholar currently working in the U.S.

Chapter Two "Confucianism, Community and Capitalism: Chen Lai and the Spirit of Max Weber" can stand alone for analysis, because it focuses on a significant and controversial issue concerning the relationship between Confucian ethics, capitalism in East Asia, and Max Weber. Relying upon Weber's distinction of value rationality versus instrumental rationality regarding the role of the Protestant ethic in the generation of capitalism, Els van Dongen finds it contradictory for New Confucians to advocate Confucianism as both a moral project of correcting inhumane practices and a social project of developing modern capitalist economies in East Asia. However, from my perspective, Confucian thought typically does not dichotomize these two forms of rationality as Weber did. Confucius indeed taught "an exemplary person is dedicated to rightness, while a petty person is dedicated to profits" (Analects 4.16), but he also cared about the economic well-being of the people (Analects 13.9), and the Great Learning also taught that people should "do what is right to generate profits" (yi yi wei li 以義為利), a dictum for later Confucian merchants' business practices. In other words, humane means for the prosperity of humanity are appreciated as moral instruments, and hence, a Confucian economic ideal would not allow the aforementioned dichotomy to take place. This means that while we consider the instrumental value of the Confucian ethic in developing East Asian capitalism, we should abandon the concept of linear causality. As a matter of fact, while a Confucian ethic helped to transmit the practice of capitalist economics from the West, it also transformed it so as to add special Asian features suitable for Confucian ethical scrutiny,1 just as Confucius once surreptitiously hinted at what he was always doing: creating while transmitting (Analects 7.1). In this way, no contradiction exists as such.

Chapters Three to Seven can be treated as one group of papers addressing the issue of Confucian democracy. We can use a spectrum to indicate the diversity of opinions among scholars who, either authoring chapters or being discussed in them, have advocated a specific Confucian attitude towards Western liberal democracy. The criteria of locating these scholars in the left or right side of the spectrum pertains to how strongly they endorse liberal democracy, and how far-ranging their advocacy of Confucianism is.

While embracing the full range of Confucian thought including at least its metaphysics, ethics and politics, Stephen C. Angle constructs concepts of political philosophy from within the Confucian tradition to respond to related global conversations, and he also advocates major premises of liberal democracy such as general suffrage and the independence of the judicial system, as universal, and hence, being welcomed by Confucianism. Therefore, Angle's idea of "progressive Confucianism" stands at the far left since he advocates both liberal democracy and Confucianism in a whole-hearted, thick way. An-wu Lin stands a bit further to the right compared to Angle, because while appreciating that institutions of liberal democracy are conducive to the flourishing of civil society, Lin prioritizes...