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  • Is Confucian Discourse Philosophy?
  • Eske J. Møllgaard (bio)

Recently some philosophers have claimed that it is a scandal that non-Western traditions are excluded from the curriculum in Western philosophy departments. I consider the case of Confucianism and argue (1) that the central features of Confucian discourse are different from those of philosophical discourse, (2) that the historical conditions that gave rise to Confucian discourse sets it apart from the formation of Western philosophy, and (3) that Western philosophers often misread Confucian discourse because they assimilate it to philosophical discourse. I conclude that in order to do justice to the Confucian masters we must read their discourse in accord with its own nature and aims.

The question whether there was philosophy in traditional China has been discussed for a century. In the beginning of the twentieth century Chinese scholars argued that ancient Chinese thought had to be systematized using Western categories in order to become philosophy. In this way "Chinese philosophy" (Zhongguo zhexue 中國哲學) was created.1 After the rise of China as a global power some Chinese scholars opposed this assimilation of traditional Chinese thought to Western philosophy.2 The question whether traditional Chinese thought is philosophy has been debated in the West as well. Many articles and whole issues of journals of Chinese and comparative philosophy have been devoted to this question.3 The following is a contribution to this ongoing debate but is limited to considering Confucian discourse. I dispute the claim that Confucian discourse is philosophy and best understood when discussed by philosophers. I agree that Western philosophy should open up to non-Western philosophy, but accepting non-Western discourses as philosophy should be based on rational debate and not on moral outrage at being excluded. To be sure, there is a certain violence in exclusion, but there is also violence in inclusion,4 and perhaps philosophy must be violent in order to maintain itself and not sink into syncretism. And many Confucians would be sad to see Confucian thought being assimilated to analytic philosophy with its set of problems and record of solutions taught in universities in the kind of English that is now used for global communication. [End Page 1029]

In a recent book Brian Van Norden argues for the inclusion of non-Western philosophy in the curriculum of Western philosophy departments. Van Norden is a specialist in Confucianism, and in order to show Western philosophers that Confucian discourse is philosophy, he highlights an argument by the important early Confucian Mencius 孟子 (born around 380 b.c.e.), namely Mencius' "reduction ad absurdum against the claim that human nature is reducible to desires for food and sex."5 There is much to admire in Mencius, but skillful argumentation is not what first comes to mind. Mencius himself says that he does not like to engage in argument, and nobody in the Confucian tradition admired Mencius because he was skillful in his argumentation. Confucians read Mencius because they believed that he was able to speak the words of the sages.

According to Mencius, there is a certain rhythm in history: now order, now disorder (yizhi yiluan 一治一亂). In times of disorder, the difference between humans and animals disappears and wild animals take over the world of human beings. Order comes about when a sage again separates beasts from humans. In Mencius' own day humans were again sinking to the level of animals, and it was Mencius' ambition to follow in the way of the former sages and, by opposing the teachings of Yang Zhu 楊朱 and Mo Zi 墨子, separate humans from animals. Mencius says:

I too want to correct the hearts of men, put an end to depraved doctrines, oppose one-sided actions, and banish excessive words and phrases, and thus continue the [work of] the three sages [Yu 禹, the Duke of Zhou 周公, and Confucius 孔子]. How could I be fond of argumentation!? The case is that I have no other recourse. He who can oppose Yang and Mo with words is a follower of the sages.6

Mencius does not like to argue (bian 辯), but he wants to speak the words (yan 言) of the sages, or, as Mencius calls it, the "one good word" (yi shanyan 一善言). This word...


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