The Good Is One, Its Manifestations Many
Confucian Essays on Metaphysics, Morals, Rituals, Institutions, and Genders
Proponents of comparative philosophy have long wondered why Confucian ethics is seen as necessarily tethered to East Asian culture, while Aristotelian ethics enjoys the reputation of being a type-O-negative morality that can be pumped into any culture. An unsatisfactory yet not uncommon response to these musings is that Greek philosophy—yo, Aristotle—is a world philosophy, while Confucianism is more of a local ethical tradition indigenous to China and extending only so far as the limits of Chinese culture. This view manifests in the institutional locations of Greek philosophers and Confucius: the Greeks provide part of the core curriculum of any philosophy department, while courses examining Confucius and the Confucian tradition are more often found in the religious studies department.
Robert Cummings Neville steadfastly argues against this blinkered position. A self-proclaimed “Boston Confucian,” Neville contends that Confucianism and the Confucian tradition is a portable tradition no less than the Aristotelian or Greek tradition. Just as one does not need to be Greek, or even speak Greek, in order to be Aristotelian, one can be Confucian without being Chinese or speaking Chinese. Neville’s latest work, The Good Is One, Its Manifestations Many, can be viewed as the third installment in a trilogy that includes Boston Confucianism: Portable Tradition in the Late-Modern World (SUNY Press, 2000) and Ritual and Deference: Extending Chinese Philosophy in a Comparative Context (SUNY Press, 2008). In this trilogy Neville makes two related claims. The first is that Chinese philosophy is a world philosophical tradition; Chinese philosophy is no more dependent on a cultural context than Greek philosophy. The second is that Chinese philosophy, and Confucianism in particular, is a living tradition, and for this reason contemporary Confucians are responsible for engaging late modernity in its various manifestations: modern science, global capitalism, human rights, and the like. Neville firmly rejects the often twined notions that Confucianism is reducible to East Asian culture and/or is an antiquated tradition with little to contribute to contemporary life in late modernity.
In The Good Is One, Its Manifestations Many, Neville mines the resources of the Confucian tradition in order to construct a Confucian response both to sexism and to sexual discrimination against the LGBTQ community. As a contemporary Boston Confucian, his approach differs from that of “liberationist” critics. Liberationists interrogate the Confucian tradition regarding gender, gender roles, relations between men and women, and issues of sexual preference, and then turn their attention to the cultural manifestations of that tradition in East Asian societies. These analyses often result in scathing denunciations of Confucianism as little more than a tired, conservative apology for male privilege and patriarchy. While sympathetic to the aims of the liberationist critics of Confucianism, Neville constructs his argument differently. Instead of focusing solely on what the Confucian tradition has to say about gender and sexuality issues—which in practice can manifest as a form of reductionism—Neville first develops a “healthy and systematic contemporary version of Confucianism” (xii), and then uses this model to address practical issues such as gender and sexuality. Such a strategy depends on Neville’s ability to distinguish between the Confucian tradition and the various cultural manifestations of that tradition.
Neville develops his systematic model of Confucianism by way of three themes. The first is metaphysics, which is treated in the first eight chapters of the book. Neville dismisses the charge that Confucianism is simply an ethical tradition with no enthusiasm for metaphysics. The problem, rather, is that the metaphysics of the Confucian tradition needs to be brought up to date with respect to modern science, capitalism, and liberalism. For this reason, in contrast to Western metaphysics, Confucian metaphysics seems uninformed and antiquarian. Drawing on arguments made in Ultimates (SUNY Press, 2013), Neville contends that the Confucian emphasis on personal cultivation aims to enhance “engagement of with the value-laden realities of nature, society, and human affairs” (14). Absent a strong metaphysical hypothesis, claims about the moral life reduce to claims about the moral subject.
This argument points to the second theme, virtue, and in particular, the claim that Confucianism is a kind of virtue ethics. While acknowledging that many philosophers have embraced the idea of Confucian virtue ethics, Neville argues that a closer comparison is with Western situation ethics, as developed by John Dewey and Alfred North Whitehead and popularized in the 1960s by Joseph Fletcher. Confucian sages seek the best possible outcome, which in some instances necessitates compromising their personal virtue. At the heart of Confucian ethics, Neville contends, is the capacity of the sage to discern possible harmonies and then act effectively to bring about those harmonies. The Confucian self is always understood in a social context of interpersonal relations mediated by ritual roles. As with the neglect of metaphysics, the heavy emphasis on virtue ethics promotes the view of human beings as private, virtuous moral subjects, which is distortive of the Confucian understanding of the self, and the place of the self in reality. In chapters 10–13, Neville develops a non-virtue ethics approach to Confucian moral theory.
The tension between individual and communal identity comprises the third theme. In place of the Western understanding of the individual defined in contrast to group membership, Confucianism views individuals in terms of ritual roles, with individuality being fluency in ritual—Neville likens this to the creative freedom of a master pianist. By framing personal and social situations in terms of ritual, moral problems become failures of ritual. Moral correction involves changing bad rituals and/or replacing them with new and better rituals—reconstruction, in other words. Neville sums up these three themes in chapter 14, and then applies the findings of his argument to gender issues in chapter 15.
The richness of this work makes it essential reading for three audiences in particular: philosophers working in the contemporary Confucian tradition; comparative philosophers, especially those with an interest in Chinese philosophy; and philosophers and theologians with a special interest in Neville’s systematic philosophy of religion. For interested readers apprehensive at plunging into Neville’s three-volume Philosophical Theology, this work of applied systematic metaphysics makes for a useful point of entry into the work of a sophisticated and challenging philosopher.
Stephen Dawson is assistant professor of religious studies at Lynchburg College.
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