John Dewey and Confucian Thought
Experiments in Intra-cultural Philosophy, Volume Two
- ISBN: 9781438474472
- Published By: State University of New York Press
- Published: August 2019
Jim Behuniak’s magisterial two-volume work on John Dewey and Chinese thought—John Dewey and Daoist Thought: Experiments in Intra-Cultural Philosophy, Volume One and John Dewey and Confucian Thought: Experiments in Intra-Cultural Philosophy, Volume Two—exemplifies scrupulous scholarship and trenchant analysis. For those interested in Dewey’s relationship to China, it is required reading, surpassing in scope all preceding works on the subject. These volumes deserve a broader readership, however, than scholars with a niche interest in Dewey and China. A work that is richly historically informed and critically and creatively articulated, these volumes warrant attention and emulation from scholars across disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.
The themes treated in each volume correspond roughly to themes conventionally labeled “Daoist” or “Confucian,” but these categories are not strictly posited. The first volume addresses topics such as the nature of organic form, teleology, cosmology, knowledge, the body, and technology. The second volume addresses topics such as education, tradition, ethics, the family, human nature, and religiousness. The first volume mainly considers Dewey’s thought and the ancient texts Daodejing and the Zhuangzi, while the second volume mainly considers Dewey’s thought and two other ancient texts The Analects (Lunyu) and Mencius (Mengzi). The first volume begins with a “Prelude” considering Dewey’s Chinese friendships, while the second volume beings with an “Interlude” considering Dewey’s Chinese dinners. Behuniak establishes that Dewey’s affection for China, Chinese people, and Chinese culture animates the final phase of his philosophical career.
Behuniak seeks to extend Dewey’s “cultural turn” by developing an “intra-cultural philosophy,” aimed not simply at observing philosophical connections between Dewey and Chinese thought but using these connections to overcome impediments to our thinking. To that end, Behuniak challenges some popular approaches to classical Chinese philosophies, especially with respect to readings of the Confucian tradition. “Intra-cultural philosophy” is distinguished from “comparative philosophy” insofar as the latter term leaves room for the false impression that one can step outside of culture and reflect from an unbiased position. Intra-cultural philosophy is fundamentally "experimental," testing interpretations and instituting new arrangements among the objects considered.
Across both volumes, Behuniak proves adept at careful curation and placement of archival and otherwise obscure materials. For example, Behuniak draws profitably on recovered drafts of Dewey’s unfinished and reportedly lost work, Unmodern Philosophy and Modern Philosophy (SIU Press, 2012). Excerpts culled from Dewey’s talks in China serve as epigrams to each chapter. Captivating illustrations punctuate both volumes. These include, among others, reproductions of notes composed by Dewey in green ink while visiting Hawai’i, a pair of traditional landscape scrolls that Dewey obtained in China, Dewey’s photograph of Confucius’s tomb, a photograph of Dewey sitting under a Chinese scroll in his Manhattan apartment, and a photograph of Dewey with a goat. Readers aware of Dewey’s having directed the dissertations of Hu Shih and Feng Youlan may be unaware of Dewey’s connection to Sing-nan Fen, for whom he was a mentor and shared a father-and-son-like relationship. Drawing on their correspondence, Behuniak brings this relationship to light, a communion whose closeness and reciprocity is symbolic of the connection between Dewey’s thought and Daoist/Confucian thought.
Taking seriously Dewey’s insistence that philosophers must start with the facts, Behuniak urges philosophers working in the Chinese tradition to understand that they are poised to contribute important work to such matters. “Contemporary physics and evolutionary biology assure us that the early Chinese picture of nature is, in many respects, more accurate than the Greek-medieval picture,” Behuniak claims, and consequently, forging connections between Daoist thought and American thought can “help us to assimilate Chinese thinking in light of our contemporary needs” (107). Postulates belonging to the Greek-medieval world which Behuniak wishes to move past include unchanging truths, discrete substances, teleological ends, and essential natures. For him, these notions feed some of the worst tendencies of contemporary American society, such as moral absolutism, climate change denial, cultural chauvinism, and religious fundamentalism (149). The following is the sort of claim Behuniak makes and substantiates in volume 1: “We know that Dewey and the Chinese are correct in identifying organic form (xing 性) with historical, mutual (xiang 相) transactions within organism-and-environment circuits. In the effort to reorient imagination and common sense in this general direction, Dewey and Chinese thought offer resources that we cannot afford to ignore” (70).
This is one of several instances in which Behuniak urges that the intracultural philosophical engagement between Dewey and Chinese thought can avoid the situation of “Philosophy Out of Gear” (a phrase that would have been the subtitle to a chapter of Dewey’s Unmodern Philosophy). Here, Behuniak traces contemporary erroneous assumptions about the natural world to positions prominent in Greek-medieval thought; chief among these is the notion that the environment is a backdrop against which organisms act out their lives. Daoist thinkers and Dewey appreciate the shared history of organism-and-environment, a history which is often ignored in debates surrounding evidence of climate change and global warming. Whereas much of the first part of volume 1 involves engagement with the Daodejing, the second part moves to engagements with the Zhuangzi. Behuniak shows that reading Dewey alongside the Zhuangzi suggests connections in areas that Dewey is not typically associated with, such as body practices, primitivism, and mysticism. Meanwhile, topics that Dewey is more regularly associated with, such as intelligence, methods of learning, and instrumentalism, resonate with the Daoist tradition in surprising ways.
Although the connection between Dewey and Confucian thought has been treated previously more so than that between Dewey’s thought and Daoist thought, Behuniak nevertheless adds new insights to the former thanks to the thoroughness of his familiarity with Dewey’s corpus, the Confucian tradition, and the historical contexts animating each. Like Jessica Ching-Sze Wang before him (John Dewey in China: To Teach and To Learn, SUNY Press, 2007), Behuniak believes that the extent to which Dewey’s philosophy was influenced by his time in China is generally neglected. Behuniak casts light on this area, citing a 1921 article that Dewey wrote while in China for publication in the Japanese magazine, Reconstruction (Kaizō 改造). From this link, Behuniak traces a decades-long trajectory of Dewey’s thought growing more “Confucian.” Drawing on still another source that most readers will not have accessed, Behuniak observes that unfinished drafts of Dewey’s 1949 “Re-Introduction” to his 1925 Experience and Nature include the explicit suggestion that the Chinese tradition is better positioned to understand the continuity of the “human” and the “natural” than Western philosophy. Behuniak suggests that the “continuity between Nature and the human” (tianrenheyi 天人合一) is perhaps the central tenet in the Confucian tradition, and it accounts for many of the parallels between Dewey’s thought and Confucian thought (12).
These parallels are not merely of academic interest to philosophers and intellectual historians. Rather, Behuniak urges that all Americans can learn from these consonances. Those attracted to the notion of reciprocity of human experience found in Dewey’s “Democracy as a Way of Life” should find value in learning that “in Confucian culture, the reciprocal nature of associated humanity (ren 仁) characterizes social experience in each phase of its growth, from the family to the national level” (137). While much of the first part of volume 2 includes citation of passages from The Analects, the second part includes significant focus on the Mencius. Here, too, Behuniak identifies the need to liberate a Chinese concept from Greek-medieval associations. On Behuniak’s account, xing 性 describes how something is presently disposed to behave spontaneously (ziran 自然), not an essential or fixed attribute. This observation corrects an error committed by those working in the “virtue ethics” paradigm of interpreting Confucian thought. Readers are thus assisted “back in gear” while Behuniak lays the groundwork for connections between Confucian thought and Dewey’s thought regarding culture, adaptation, and growth.
With this two-volume set, Behuniak has produced an exemplary work of intra-cultural philosophy. The dynamic interplay between Dewey’s and Confucian/Daoist philosophies percolates spiritedly in its pages, the contemporary relevance of the exchange never in doubt. Behuniak’s meticulous scholarship leaves no stone unturned, while his incisive analyses offer critical and productive contributions to ongoing dialogues. There is much to be gained from this book; I would recommend it highly to anyone.
Mathew A. Foust is professor of philosophy and chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Appalachian State University.Mathew A. FoustDate Of Review:July 27, 2023