Confucianisms for a Changing World Cultural Order

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Roger T. Ames, Peter D. Hershock
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawaii Press
    , November
     284 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Vexed by human predicaments which are seemingly intractable under the aegis of liberal democracies and global capitalism, Confucianisms for a Changing World Cultural Order, edited by Roger T. Ames and Peter D. Hershock, seeks wisdom from Confucianism to tentatively introduce a changing world cultural order. For this purpose, a “narrative”—rather than “analytic”—approach for presenting Confucianism is preferred (4). Thus, Confucianism is not introduced as an ahistorical system of ideology equipped with static structures and definite concepts. Rather, it is seen as an evolving story wherein individuals and communities, with their varying understandings of Confucianism, continually engage historical situations and aim for human flourishing in their unique contexts. Utilizing this approach, the volume succeeds in bringing varying Confucianisms into the conversation. However, it remains questionable whether it succeeds in convincing readers that Confucianism can alleviate contemporary human predicaments and conduce to a changing world cultural order. This can be illustrated using the most contested idea in the book: liberal democracy.

There are no less than four attitudes towards liberal democracy in this collection. Chapter 15 documents strong trends of Confucian thought within China’s Ming and Qing dynasties, which preceded—and are thought of as being congenial to—Western ideas of liberal democracy, such as balance of powers and protection of private property. Chapter 2 contrasts liberal democracy and Confucianism regarding their disparate understandings of freedom. It argues that liberal democracy is based upon negative freedom of non-interference by which individuals optimize their natural human rights, while Confucianism emphasizes positive freedom, i.e., one for individuals to develop into authentic persons who can harmonize inner desires with outer social conventions. Although it recognizes the need for both, while simultaneously acknowledging neither is perfect, chapter 2 urges a “reconciliation of liberalism and Confucianism” (41) with the conclusion that Confucius’s old teaching “can function as a new antidote for the cultural illness of liberal self-centeredness” (41). In this sense, while chapter 15 recognizes ideas of liberal democracy as intrinsic to Confucianism, chapter 2 contrasts the two traditions with a demand of reconciliation. Chapter 4 moves even further in contrasting the two traditions. It calls for the establishment of a Special District of Confucian Culture (SDC) in a granted land—similar to the Amish community in the US—where the use of modern technologies is restrained, education succumbs to certain censorship, and the society is based upon the self-governance of families. For chapter 4, SDC is “essential for the manifestation of tiandao (the Way of Heaven) in this world” (69), and therefore, the presence of the aforementioned “reconciliation” is subdued. The fourth Confucian attitude towards liberal democracy is exemplified by chapters 1 and 13. Both concede Confucianism can offer an alternative idea of democracy. Chapter 1 suggests the idea would be “a conception of Confucian global democracy that transforms the relationship of global economic transactions into cooperative interactions” (23). Meanwhile, chapter 13 suggests that Confucianism’s advocacy on “aesthetic communities” can contribute to a democracy in John Dewey’s sense of “full participation and communication in many forms of communities” (232). 

This mélange of Confucianisms can be attributed to each author’s use of the various source material. Chapter 15 focuses on Confucian thinkers in the transitional period of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Chapters 1 and 2 rely upon classical philosophers such as Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi. Chapter 4’s political philosophy is grounded in the Gongyang commentary on the Annals of Spring and Autumn, while chapter 13 concentrates on the Classic of Change.

The use of these diverse Confucianisms to explore such contemporary human predicaments may be problematic for readers wanting a more general introduction to the subject.This difficulty is exacerbated if we take the geo-political variations of Confucianism into consideration. For example, despite the obvious tension between modernity and Confucianism, chapters 6 and 7 argue that it is the cherished virtues of “loyalty” and “bravery” that pushed Japan into modernity. One driving force was the Confucian school of thought following Wang Yangming, the so-called yomei-gaiku. 

Although the predicaments discussed in the volume are important, and there is always value in diversification for the growth of any tradition, perhaps an alternative approach to the “non-analytic and narrative” methodology previously described would have alleviated readers’ perplexity without diminishing the volume’s intellectual creativity. 

Confucianism can be seen as the most universalist among all major East Asian philosophies. The major syntheses that Confucianism has experienced in its history all derived from a process of debate and the incorporation of a variety of schools of thought to offer a more or less universal and effective solution to problems that were common to human flourishing within a particular historical context. However, one salient feature of the Confucian universality is its fallibility, since Confucian scholars have never stopped debating the best solutions. This also means universality does not necessarily clash with particularity, since Confucian scholars—especially in the neo-Confucian tradition—believed “the principle is one and its manifestations are many,” and thus, tried to apply those contested universal principles to particular contexts.

With the two guidelines of “fallible universalism” and “universal particularism,” we can envision an approach to Confucian studies: first, to detect shared human predicaments; second, to employ all relevant sources in the tradition to present the best universal antidote to those predicaments—with universal being understood as considering major variations of Confucian thought, incorporating contesting thoughts from other traditions, and an applicability to aid human society at large with its shared problems—and thirdly, to continually debate the effectiveness of those universal solutions while seeking to apply them to local communities and particular situations.

Compared with this volume’s meticulous efforts, this alternative approach is more of a vision than a visible path. Due to these efforts, Confucianisms for a Changing World Cultural Order will be of significance for all scholars with an interest not only in the Confucian thought but also its practical relevance to the human condition today.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bin Song is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Washington College.

Date of Review: 
January 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Roger T. Ames is Distinguished Humanities Chair Professor at Peking University, a Berggruen Fellow, and former professor of philosophy at the University of Hawai‘i.

Peter D. Hershock is director of the Asian Studies Development Program and education specialist at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawai‘i.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.