Written by Jana S. Rošker
Ming-huei Lee: Konfuzianischer Humanismus – Transkulturelle Kontexte (Ming-huei Lee: Confucian Humanism – Transcultural Contexts) transcript Verlag, Bielefeld, 2013
(EUR 24,80; ISBN 978-3-8376-2515-8)
Ming-huei Lee, the author of the present work, is a research fellow at the Academia Sinica and a professor of philosophy at the National Taiwan University, in Taipei. His research interests range from classical and modern Confucianism to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. He is one of contemporary New Confucianism’s most noted theorists and a leading representative of this philosophical current.
The present study first appeared in the series The Man in the Netting of Cultures – Humanism in the Era of Globalization, an editorial project for the exposition, analysis and discussion of the heterogeneous and partially (and justifiably) discredited concept of humanism from a global perspective. Based on multidisciplinary and multicultural approaches, the series seeks to revive the concept of a universal humanity and to establish an epistemological platform capable of re-validating this tradition and providing it with new cultural orientation skills. To this end, it publishes critical investigations of various humanistic traditions in diverse research fields. Its greatest value consists precisely in the fact that it takes into account the intercultural discourses of humanism. The series is thus characterized by its attempt to revive various concepts of humanism, without denying their significant cultural differences.
How does humanism manifest itself beyond Eurocentric discourses in the contemporary world? The ongoing debate on humanism in the period of globalization today appears as necessary as it is controversial.
If we wish to create a humanistic world culture, we must include the humanistic traditions that grew out of Confucianism. Although institutionalized Confucianism experienced severe setbacks when it was excluded from the official examination system and then also due to the socio-political upheavals and changes that swept through China in the 20th century, the cultural identity within both the Chinese linguistic and cultural areas is still strongly defined by its Confucian imprint.
Despite a diffused skepticism as to the actual relevance of Confucianism in the present era of rapid modernization, many Confucian values remain in evidence not only in modern China and Taiwan, but in the entire East Asian region.
Ming-huei Lee’s book provides an informative and in-depth look into the specific nature of Confucian humanism and highlights some new, humanistic aspects of traditional thought that are little known in the Western world. As in his previous study, Der Konfuzianismus im modernem China (Confucianism in Modern China) (2001, Leipzig: Leipziger Universitätsverlag), the present volume should be of great interest to a wide circle of readers and scholars who wish to know more about the current situation of Confucianism within the context of China’s modern development.
In Confucian Humanism, the author sets out to elucidate the Confucian tradition, both past and present, from a transcultural perspective. In addition to comparing Confucian and traditional European humanism, and analyzing the social and political position of Confucianism in contemporary China, Ming-huei also analyzes and reinterprets various aspects of classical Confucianism and its extremely fruitful encounter with German Idealism (especially Kantian philosophy), which has played such an essential role in the formation of Modern Confucianism. In the course of these analyses, the author explains clearly how and why the Confucian tradition has managed to preserve, update and further develop its most vital traditions through modern self-transformation.
The book opens with a brief account on the origin and development of the social contexts that have formed the Western idea of humanism, with the author noting that “similar to the notions ‘philosophy’ and ‘religion’, the word ‘humanism’ was also perceived in China in the process of its confrontation with the West” (p. 9). Ming-huei’s thorough exposition of this concept which, while culturally conditioned nevertheless includes several universal elements, enables him to shape the term “Confucian humanism” and explain its basic, specific features, and then to insert it into the broader context of current debates on humanism.
The first two chapters of the book which follow (pp. 21-42; 43-52) further define this specific form of humanism, based on a close analysis of two canonical texts of classical Confucianism, the Analects (Lun Yu) and Mencius (Mengzi).
Having clarified the epistemological foundations, Prof. Lee then describes the reception of Kant’s philosophy in China, and its importance for the self-transformation and modernization of classical Confucian concepts (Chapter 3, pp. 53-76 and Chapter 4, pp. 77-90). In particular, he explains why the majority of Modern Neo-Confucians considered Kant’s moral philosophy as being closest to the philosophical foundations of Confucianism, and why his philosophical system is probably best suited to creating a synthesis between Chinese and European philosophies. However, Lee here makes the same error as most Western philosophers, who have always equated Chinese philosophy with Confucian moral philosophy. While it is certainly true that moral and ethical issues form the core of Chinese philosophy, this reductive view does not take into account the many other important philosophical streams which have exerted such a profound influence on Chinese intellectual history (e.g. Daoism, Mohism or the School of Names), and how this view is itself responsible for many of the prejudices concerning Confucianism. This caveat aside, such a misconception certainly does not diminish the overall theoretical value of Lee’s analyses, also because he is dealing explicitly with Confucian discourses.
As one of the foremost Kant specialists in contemporary East Asia, Prof. Lee is eminently qualified to elucidate the wide range of approaches used by Modern Confucians in formulating their syntheses of these two philosophical systems. Particularly significant is his analysis of Mou Zongsan’s re-elaborationand development of Kant, which probably offers the most valid basis for incorporating the superstructure of Kant’s philosophical system within the framework of intercultural philosophy. In this context, he singles out two specific concepts and explains their importance as providing a basis for further theoretical research:
- Kant’s concept of “moral religion”, as offering a possible basis for transcultural encounters/syntheses with Confucian humanism.
- The classical Confucian paradigm of“immanent transcendence”, including the important theoretical development of this paradigm by the Neo-Confucian philosophers of the Song and Ming dynasties.
Ming-huei Lee applies these two concepts in order to delineate the main differences between the two theoretical systems. He points out that there is “a logical link between Kant’s moral autonomy and his moral religion” (p. 111), and notes that Mou had further developed this ethical discourse in his own theorizing. Through a brilliant elaboration of the difference between Kant’s moral philosophy, which remains trapped within the framework of Christian transcendence, and Mou Zongsan’s “moral metaphysics”, which is instead based on immanent transcendence, Ming-huei Lee succeeds in resolving a dilemma which has dominated sinological debates in recent years, and which revolves around the question of whether Confucianism can be considered as a philosophy with religious elements (Chapter 5, pp. 91-129).
Lee explains in great detail how Mou Zongsan’s concept of moral autonomy dismantled and extended the limitations of the Kantian conception of moral religion (which remains within the limits of reason alone), and how this concept was not only relativized, but, strictly speaking, contradicted or undercut by Kant’s postulate of the existence of God. However, here the author would have done well to have also included a discussion of Mou’s very problematic elaboration on Hegel’s philosophy. In fact, the title of Chapter 4, Creative Transformations of German Philosophy (Schöpferische Transformation der deutschen Philosophie) appears as somewhat misleading, given that it is exclusively dedicated to Mou Zongsan’s elaboration on Kant.
These minor issues aside, by stressing the religious dimension of Confucian philosophy, Ming-huei Lee certainly succeeds in his intent of making a European readership more familiar with a religiously imprinted Confucian humanism. The Confucian notion of religion, however, does not imply a concept of an external God, and Lee points out that even the classical Confucian canon warns that “no one can make judgments about the actual existence or non-existence of ghosts and gods” (p. 114). This philosophy instead implies the internalization of ethical postulates by the specific Confucian moral subject, whose autonomy and immanent transcendent nature in no way depend upon the existence of an external God.
Thanks to Ming-huei Lee’s brilliant analyses, coherent exposition and clear but informative explanations, his study represents an extremely valuable contribution to the contemporary theoretical dialogue between China and Europe. It provides the reader with new and innovative elements for comprehension and critical reflection, and a transculturally conditioned reassessment of the concepts of humanism, humanity and being-human, understood as a still unrealized future potential.