Confucianism and American Philosophy

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Mathew A. Foust
SUNY Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , April
     194 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Mathew A. Foust has written a fine work of comparative philosophy. In order to appreciate his accomplishment, we should start, as Foust does in his Introduction, by considering what comparative philosophy is. For Foust (following Robert Smid), comparative philosophy is intellectual engagement across boundaries of distinct philosophical traditions. Philosophy appears in two modes: first, as intellectual practices of inquiry, and second as traditions of inquiry. While practices of inquiry can be attributed to philosophy tout court—and philosophical traditions are familiar means of boundary drawing—comparative philosophy is distinguished by being inquiry across boundaries. I call this identifying characteristic the transgressive imperative, which I can express in the maxim Do not resist the transgression of boundaries.

According to Foust, there are at least three benefits to be gleamed from the comparative approach to philosophy. First, a fatter philosophical bankroll becomes possible. Comparative treatments of philosophical chestnuts such as “What is the best way of life?” open up a wider array of positions and perspectives than any one tradition can marshal. Second, better understanding, both of unfamiliar philosophical traditions as well as our own, is promoted. The effect of comparative inquiry on understanding our own traditions works in much the same way as learning a second language, which often reveals features of our native language to us (such as grammar) that mostly pass unnoticed. Third, more creative responses to philosophical questions are possible, owing largely to the confluence of new resources and better understanding. Foust contends that the dialogue of Confucianism and classical American philosophy taps all of these benefits.

A quick word about terminology: Foust understands Confucianism straightforwardly in terms of Confucius and his principal philosophical followers, Mencius and Xunzi. Classical American philosophy, in turn, he views as comprised of two distinct intellectual movements: American transcendentalism and pragmatism.

Following the Introduction, Foust’s first two chapters address the transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Both Emerson and Thoreau engaged Confucian texts directly, albeit it via translations. In chapter 1, Foust compares the concept of friendship in the work of Confucius and Emerson. His point of contact is Emerson’s sustained rumination over this line from Confucius: “Have no friend unlike yourself” (Analects, 1.8). In several essays on friendship, Emerson’s ambivalence toward this notion waxes and wanes, but always circles back to his conviction that friends can be both like and unlike oneself. Ultimately, Foust argues, Emerson and Confucius find common ground in the capacity of friends to promote mutual moral cultivation. This chapter epitomizes the wide range of resources comparative philosophy offers interested readers on the topic of friendship along with the creative responses those resources promote.

Chapter 2 focuses on Henry David Thoreau’s political thought as expressed in his seminal essay “Civil Disobedience.” In this essay Thoreau refers to the Analects and Mencius, but in both cases Thoreau does so in order to contrast his own position regarding the normative relationship of citizen to government and the importance of civil disobedience as a means of rectifying government that has fallen into disorder. While civil disobedience is not readily associated with Confucianism, Foust demonstrates that resources for civil disobedience (performed, however, by ministers rather than the people) can be found in the thought of Confucius and Mencius. Foust suggests at the end of the chapter that one useful way to understand Thoreau’s advocacy of civil disobedience is in terms of the Confucian insistence on devotion to ren (Goodness) rather than the defiant desire to foment rebellion.

Chapters 3–5 compare pragmatist and Confucian philosophers on several philosophical issues. Unlike the earlier chapters on the transcendentalists, in which comparison was driven by individual philosophers’ specific engagement with the Confucian tradition, the pragmatist chapters focus on the analysis of particular philosophical questions in a comparative context. Chapter 3 examines inquiry and belief formation, and does so by ushering Charles Peirce (specifically his great essay “The Fixation of Belief,” which considers four methods of forming stable beliefs) and Confucius into dialogue. In the popular mind, at least, Confucius is often seen as a sage imparting wisdom to others. The picture of Confucius depicted in Analects, however, is much different. There Confucius draws attention time and again to his love of learning. Those who aspire to wisdom must be curious inquirers (see, e.g., Analects 9.8). Indeed, inquiry is a fertile point of contact between Peirce and Confucius. Of the four ways of fixing beliefs described by Peirce, Foust argues persuasively that Confucius’s attitude toward inquiry is closest to what Peirce describes as the method of science (76–79). For Confucian readers, viewing Confucius in a Peircean context could open new ways of understanding certain passages from the Analects. Students of Peirce, in contrast, could find a useful opening into the Confucian tradition.

In chapter 4, Foust turns his attention to human nature. In the Confucian tradition, Mencius and Xunzi are famously opposed on this subject. While Mencius claims human nature to be fundamentally good, Xunzi memorably describes it as evil. Foust then brings William James into the conversation. For all of his loquaciousness on this topic, James never provides a clean, systematic account of human nature. Despite the can-do optimism frequently wafting up from James’s prose, which suggests that James might be more inclined to the Mencian view, Foust argues that there is a “strong affinity” between Xunzi and James, with the evidence for this judgment supplied by Foust’s close reading of James’s essay “The Moral Equivalent of War.” Both agree that only strenuous moral action can overcome the passions animating human nature.

Chapter 5 delves into the phenomenon of shame and the responsibility of the wrongdoer to make amends (atonement). Foust places Confucius, Mencius, and Josiah Royce in conversation with one another. Confucius understands these issues from the perspective of the junzi, or authoritative person who serves as a moral exemplar. Junzis have a well-developed sense of shame with respect to moral impropriety, yet they are not ashamed for the wrong reason (e.g., shabby clothing; see Analects 4.9). Shameful actions find expression in disharmony, which can be rectified by li (the practice of ritual). Li also provides the means of atonement. Royce, for his part, uses Christian theological terms to frame his presentation. Nevertheless, his argument has good bones, as realtors like to say of houses, and thus can be stripped of its Christian clothing. “Sinful” or wrong actions are occasions of shame; wrongdoers can obtain reconciliation and ultimately reformation through confessing their wrongs and making amends. In a brief conclusion, Foust recaps his argument and offers two suggestions for future comparative engagements.

Confucianism and American Philosophy is a marvelous example of what Robert Cummings Neville has dubbed “Boston Confucianism,” which refers to an irenic membership comprising everyone outside of the East Asian cultural milieu who treats Confucianism as a valuable philosophical resource. This book should be of interest to multiple audiences: philosophers and religionists interested in comparative philosophy, classical American philosophy, the Confucian tradition, and the productive interplay between the two traditions. I highly recommend it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephen Dawson is associate professor of religious studies at Lynchburg College.

Date of Review: 
September 26, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mathew A. Foust is associate professor of philosophy at Central Connecticut State University. He is the author of Loyalty to Loyalty: Josiah Royce and the Genuine Moral Life and the coeditor (with Sor-hoon Tan) of Feminist Encounters with Confucius.


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