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  • Reply to Tongdong Bai
  • Eske J. Møllgaard (bio)

Bai Tongdong and I agree on the most important point: not everything is philosophy. With this initial agreement we can begin to discuss whether Confucian discourse is philosophy, and with determination and discipline in our proposals and replies we can clear up misunderstandings and overcome [End Page 1055] disagreements, and so hopefully come closer to the fact of the matter. I am happy that Bai has provided me this opportunity to clarify my position, and I shall first address the points where Bai misunderstands my argument and then the points where we disagree and there is need for further discussion.

First the misunderstandings. Bai writes that "Confucianism can be read philosophically, in spite of Møllgaard's argument," and the title of his response to me is "Confucianism Can be Read as Philosophy." I do not dispute that Confucianism can be read as philosophy. I argue that Confucian discourse is not philosophy. Similarly Shakespeare's discourse is not philosophy (it is literature), but it can be and has been read philosophically.

When I mention that Xunzi wants to execute philosophers Bai responds that Plato, too, wants to execute people. In the passage from the Republic to which Bai refers, Plato does suggest that people over a certain age be exiled from the city, which is bad enough, but Plato does not say that anyone should be executed. At any rate, the question here is how Xunzi and Plato view philosophers, and here the difference is clear: Plato wants to make them kings; Xunzi wants to kill them. This obviously is a major difference between the two traditions.

Bai says that it is "bizarre" to claim that a Chinese, such as himself, must necessarily understand Confucian discourse better than an American university professor who studies Confucianism. I am not saying that just by being Chinese you necessarily understand Confucianism better than others. I point out that the political leadership in China is influenced by the long tradition of Confucian political thought—and I am certainly not the first to have noted Confucian influences in the CCP's mode of operation—and Chinese political leaders use the Confucian tradition as they see fit (and in parts, perhaps, they use it only unconsciously), and so they have hands-on experience of the tradition in a practical context where the stakes are high and one must understand what one is dealing with. An American university professor does not have this practical experience and the related understanding, but neither does a Chinese university professor who studies Confucianism, for in today's globalized academy there is no difference between an American and a Chinese professor of Confucian studies. So-called "Confucian philosophy" is created by these globalized professors, but Confucianism is first of all a political praxis. It may be the case that, as Bai says, the CCP misuses Confucianism, but misuse is still a kind of use. When Confucian discourse, understood as an apparatus or a machinery with its specific features, functions, and aims—which I have described in my article—is placed in the field of philosophy it is neither used nor misused; it simply stands there idle.

Bai says that I identify philosophy with analytic philosophy and think that argumentation is essential to philosophy. According to Bai that is too narrow a view of philosophy. In my article I write that "many Confucians would be sad to see Confucian thought being assimilated to analytic [End Page 1056] 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." I am also sad to see this done. I am not a fan of this type of analytic philosophy, and Alain Badiou, from whom I borrow my preliminary definition of philosophy, is not from the analytic school. If Bai reads my book on Zhuangzi he will see that I am rather more attracted to so-called continental philosophy.1 But, contrary to what Bai writes, both continental and analytic philosophy are based on argument. Continental philosophy may have more affinity with literary and poetic discourses, and with religious, even mystical, thought, but...


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