Institute for European global studies

The Exterior of Philosophy: On the Practice of New Confucianism

an interview with Philippe Major (Universität Basel) by Ilaria Fornacciari


    “The Exterior of Philosophy: On the Practice of New Confucianism” is the title of the project developed in Basel, at Institute for European global studies, by a team of researchers composed by Dr. Philippe Major, Yvonne Yim Fong Chan, Milan Matthiesen, Tabea Klaiber and leaded by Prof. Dr. Ralph Weber. We have the pleasure to talk about the innovative characters and the aims of this research project with Dr. Philippe Major.


    Let’s start from the title of this project, why “the exterior of philosophy” and (consequently) what would be its interior?

    Historically, the discipline of philosophy has had a tendency to regard itself and project itself as an autonomous field that can only be understood from within, thus drawing strict boundaries between an interior and an exterior that legitimized those on the inside. For many philosophers, to study philosophy historically, sociologically, or psychoanalytically, to name only some of the many options, is if not a mistake at least a rather meaningless enterprise, since only philosophy can make sense of what philosophy is all about. This position – which is by no means the only one in philosophy circles, although I would argue it is one that is sufficiently popular to warrant our close attention – is based on the assumption that nothing grounds philosophy but philosophy itself. Bourdieu discusses this issue at length in his Pascalian Meditations, arguing that philosophy’s claim to be able to ground all other scientific fields epistemologically while at the same time maintaining that philosophy itself cannot be made into an object of perspectives other than philosophical ones entails a form of “symbolic violence” aimed at dislodging other approaches to the exterior of philosophy, thus ensuring that the discipline cannot be challenged by external perspectives.

    One way to look at our project is to see in it an attempt at blurring the lines between exterior and interior. Let me explain what this entails for me. By looking at philosophy from its exterior (sociology), the goal is to reveal the social conditions of possibility of philosophy, social conditions that inform what takes place at the level of the interior of philosophy sufficiently that the very distinction between interior and exterior that foregrounds the symbolic violence Bourdieu talks about becomes somewhat muddled, the exterior revealing itself as an integral part of the interior. The goal is not to provide a simplistic epiphenomenal reading whereby the philosophical would be a direct product of the social. Sociology of philosophy is in fact quite helpful in including a third layer, the meso-level of the philosophical field which sits between the macro- and micro-levels, and which filters the ways in which the macro (social structures) bears onto the micro (philosophical work). So the point is not to provide a facile critique of philosophy as a mere sublimation of social class interest.

    One element that interests us, in this project, and which is still under discussion at the moment, is whether a sociological approach to philosophy could be understood as a sub-discipline of philosophy, basically as a means through which philosophy can think of its own social conditions of possibility (Martin Kusch would certainly reply in the affirmative to this). In short, it might be that taking a detour through the exterior reveals something of the interior of philosophy that is philosophically relevant. We don’t expect to convince all philosophers of this claim, of course; some might be more inclined to agree with us, especially if they have a Marxist or poststructuralist background, for example, while we don’t expect to draw large crowds of analytic philosophers on our side. But the question of philosophy’s relation to its exterior, even if you don’t agree with us, is still a topic that deserves more attention than it has had thus far within the philosophical field.


    What type or relation (historical and/or conceptual) relate New Confucianism with Confucianism and what type of shift or deviation differentiate them?

    I should first mention that Confucianism is a general term that is usually subdivided in at least three historical periods: classical Confucianism (before the Qin dynasty), Neo-Confucianism (from the Song dynasty on), and New Confucianism, which refers to the modern period, beginning either from the very end of the nineteenth century or right after the May Fourth movement of 1919 (depending on your allegiances). Periodization and genealogies have been a central concern of Confucians since at least the Song dynasty, and the periodization presented here is the result of important internal struggles to define what counts as orthodox and what, or more properly who, should be rejected from the recognized canon. This is also the case for New Confucianism.

    Each period, I should note, is also sufficiently diverse to question the use of “Confucianism” in the singular. One way to think of the three periods is to look not at the philosophical content of each, which is rather diverse, but to think of each period as an answer to a socio-political issue: classical Confucianism rose in answer to the problem of political order, Neo-Confucianism can be regarded as reaction to, and against, the popularization of Buddhism (among other factors, of course), and New Confucianism might be understood as a reaction to, but not necessarily against, the introduction of novel socio-political concepts as well as new ways of dividing academic disciplines imported from Europe. In each case, a central concern of Confucianism is that of opening up a discursive and social space for its agenda against competing ones: be they Mohist, in the classical period, or Maoist in the modern one. At least this is how I understand it from the perspective of sociology of philosophy.

    I understand these explanations won’t make Confucianism terribly attractive to philosophers in Europe, I’m afraid. In terms of philosophical content, or the interior of philosophy if you will, one of the main distinguishing features of New Confucianism, compared to the previous periods, is its engagement with Euro-American philosophy, and especially Bergson, Kant, and Hegel. The entire philosophical work of arguably the most famous New Confucian, Mou Zongsan, can in fact be interpreted as an attempt to show that Confucianism can succeed where Kant failed, notably by showing that intellectual intuition of the noumenal is, pace Kant, indeed possible. In the process, Mou borrowed much of his conceptual edifice from Neo-Confucianism as well as Buddhism, Kant, and Hegel, but in fact one who isn’t an expert in the field would be hard pressed, I believe, to find similarities between classical Confucianism and Mou’s personal take on the tradition. The point is not to say that Mou deviated from the original source (whatever that may be), but rather to highlight the diversity, complexity, and tensions inherent in the tradition.

    Historically, the term “New Confucianism” was not applied to the group of philosophers it now refers to until the 1970s, and in English it has the inconvenience that it doesn’t provide a clear sense of what distinguishes it from “Neo-Confucianism” (in Chinese, “Neo-Confucianism” is usually referred to as Song-Ming Lixue 宋明理學, which literally can be translated as The Study of Patterns or Principles of the Song and Ming [Dynasties]). This is one of the reasons why I prefer to use “Modern Confucianism,” also because it does a better job at highlighting that one of the central concerns of twentieth and twenty-first century Confucian philosophers is the question of modernity, or in other words, the question of how to adapt the Confucian tradition to modern social conditions in which Confucianism no longer finds itself firmly grounded in an institution as pivotal as the imperial examination system was before its abolition in 1905.

    Who are the most important figures in New Confucianism? And how extensive is its actual influence?

    This is a difficult question to answer, as it directly bears onto the politics of orthodoxy formation that has been a central concern of Confucian thinkers, particularly after 1949. Right now there are two main groups vying for the title of legitimate representative of the Confucian tradition: the mainland New Confucians and those simply known as “New Confucians.” The latter group is usually divided into three generations following a patrilineage of sorts – women have been thus far excluded from the genealogies of New Confucians. The first generation includes Liang Shuming and Xiong Shili, who have been both credited as founding fathers of the “movement.” Liang’s main interest lied in philosophy of culture, although he was also rather practically minded, and engaged in rural reform movements as well (he didn’t regard himself as a professional, academic philosopher). Xiong, on the other hand, is usually credited with laying out the ontological foundation of New Confucianism, although this is debatable. Scholars have thus far been more interested in the main figures of the second generation, however: Tang Junyi and especially Mou Zongsan. Mou developed his philosophical edifice around the figure of Kant, as mentioned earlier, while Tang developed a complex understanding of the rise of the “moral self” through some form of reworked Hegelian dialectic. The third generation includes diverse philosophers such as Li Minghui, Tu Weiming, and Cheng Zhongying. It is still uncertain whether there is or will be a fourth generation.

    The influence of these thinkers has oscillated following the exigencies of history. There was an important resurgence of interest in their philosophies on the mainland following the economic rise of the four mini-dragons (Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Singapore) in the 1980s, as the Weberian thesis was suddenly reversed on its head to argue that Confucianism somehow played a role in this economic “miracle.” There is still a lot of books written on them these days in China, but not many would regard themselves as belonging to their lineage. Instead, the last two decades have seen the emergence of a rival group, the mainland New Confucians, who criticize the New Confucians for failing to pay attention to politics and for narrowly concerning themselves with philosophical issues. While this criticism is to a great extent unfair, insofar as the work of New Confucians is political, although they would define the political in much broader terms than mainland New Confucians do, it has enabled the mainland New Confucians to develop a group identity around a shared rejection of the previous patrilineage.

    For most mainland New Confucians, the main figure is not Xiong Shili, but rather Kang Youwei, a late Qing dynasty reformer who promoted the establishment of Confucianism as a state religion. This shows the extent to which mainland New Confucians shift their attention from philosophy to narrowly-defined political matters (and religious ones, but only insofar as they are politically useful). Here the main figures are Jiang Qing (not to be confused with Mao’s fourth wife!), Gan Yang, Chen Ming, and Kang Xiaoguang, to name but a few. Although politically fascinating, their work tends not to be particularly philosophically stimulating. This in part explains why in philosophy circles, outside of mainland China, the main attention is still on figures like Mou Zongsan, Tang Junyi, Xiong Shili, and Feng Youlan (who tends to be excluded from the patrilineage for a variety of reasons, although he is a fascinating figure).

    How and why is New Confucianism approached, by the project, as practical reaction to a series of local and global challenges?

    It is sometimes hard to distinguish between local and global challenges when it comes to modern Chinese history, as they are intricately tied. On the one hand one could argue – and it has been argued by many, in fact – that New Confucianism is a reaction to the challenge of modernity. To contextualize New Confucianism in this way allows us to see it as part of a global network of modern critiques of modernity – that is, critiques that were concerned with the effects of industrialization, capitalism, totalitarianism, the rise of instrumental rationality, etc., but critiques that also acknowledged the positive side of modernity (science and democracy, for most New Confucians).

    But New Confucianism is also a reaction to local developments that are tied to global trends. From a more local perspective, I regard New Confucianism as a reaction to a crisis of legitimacy of the intellectual elite in China. Basically, before 1911, there existed clear social institutions and structures, particularly the imperial examination system, that were responsible for providing legitimacy to the (Confucian) intellectual elite. The important thing to keep in mind is that Confucianism had formed the orthodox core of the imperial examination system. Once the latter was abolished, in 1905, Confucianism lost the institutional ground on which its claim to a monopoly over the tools of intellectual distinction relied. Confucians suddenly had to compete with radically new intellectual propositions, while also attempting to make a space for themselves in new institutions such as the university system. This had a direct impact on the way Confucianism was approached from then on: as a philosophy, partly mapped onto a nineteenth-century European model of the philosophical system, and partly mapped onto a traditional sense of mission that Confucians shared as a class of scholar-officials that saw itself as entrusted with the task of saving the nation (from imperialism, communism, scientism, etc.).

    While the abolition of the imperial examination system is a local phenomenon, it is obviously tied to a number of global phenomena, primarily that of imperialism. As such, New Confucianism can be regarded as a reaction to both local and global challenges (or glocal ones, if one doesn’t mind the neologism).

    How does New Confucianism relate to European Philosophy nowadays and what was its relation to it in the recent past?

    European philosophy (although Chinese tend to prefer to talk of “Western philosophy,” or Xifang zhexue 西方哲學 in Chinese) has been a central concern of New Confucianism from the very start. While some thinkers of the so-called first generation, and I am thinking in particular of Xiong Shili, were not particularly well-versed in European philosophy, the way they conceptualized Confucianism was still greatly defined by the other European philosophy represented to them. New Confucians have tended to take one of the following three routes on this issue. Some, and I’m thinking of Feng Youlan in particular, tried to reshape Chinese philosophy into something that would approximate Western philosophy in its scope and interests. The goal was to legitimize Chinese thought by translating it through the means of this new discipline imported from Europe and called, if translated literally, “the study of wisdom” in Chinese (zhexue). Yet Feng still held that Confucianism had something that Western philosophy didn’t have. This is the second approach to the issue of European philosophy, which was widely shared by the majority of New Confucians until recently. Basically, the idea was to argue that while Western philosophy is of great value, Confucianism can bring something to the table that is lacking in it. In Mou Zongsan, that lack was intellectual intuition into a noumenal realm redefined as a source of moral law, while in others, such as Xiong Shili, Confucianism’s superiority lied in its ability to allow its practitioner to intuit a universe in constant transformation without breaking it in parts (as he believed Western science and philosophy did). Most New Confucians therefore built their understanding of Confucianism in opposition to European philosophy, to the extent that the former kept the negative mark of the latter in its midst.

    This is one of the reasons why mainland New Confucians have criticized them for turning Confucianism into something it was never meant to be: a philosophy. For them, Confucianism is first and foremost a socio-political system that is still relevant today. Still many of them work in philosophy departments, but they portray their own work as one of returning to the original essence of the tradition before the distortions brought on by European philosophy were introduced into China. Some in China today in fact go so far as to agree with Derrida’s assessment, that China never had philosophy to start with, and that this is for the better (although this last part of Derrida’s assessment was lost to his bewildered Chinese audience when he made this claim while on visit to China in 2001; Derrida showing little sensitivity to the colonial subtext his comments might have in this context). Yet although a number of mainland New Confucians claim to purify Confucianism from European influence, in fact their own program is often mapped onto European models. This is the case of Jiang Qing, for example, who developed his own version of a tricameral parliament (including one democratically elected!). Propositions to adopt a new system to count years from the birth of Confucius also betray their indebtedness to the Christian model (traditionally, years were counted from the accession to the throne of a new emperor in China). This significantly challenges their claim to “return” to an “original” form of Confucianism that would be unpolluted by the influence of a hegemonic European philosophy.

    What is Sociology of Philosophy? How does it relate to Philosophy as a discipline? Why is the study of New Confucianism a preferential field for developing this approach? and how do you see its applicability outside this project?

    Sociology of Philosophy is a small field that includes thinkers like Randall Collins, Martin Kusch, and Pierre Bourdieu, to name but a few main figures. It aims at studying the sociological dimension of philosophical practice without falling into the trap of a simplistic epiphenomenal reading of the relation between the social and the cultural. To do so, it interposes a mid-level between the macro-structures (social institutions, capitalism, etc.) and the micro ones (philosophical work), which is the philosophical field. The idea is that philosophical work is directly affected by the philosophical field, but only indirectly so when it comes to wider social structures. This is due to what Bourdieu calls “skohlè”; time that is freed from the urgencies of the world, and which is the social condition that enables what he calls scholastic thought (which for him is not limited to scholasticism, but extends to all fields that require distance from the world).

    Most scholars in the field are sociologists, but there are exceptions. Martin Kusch is a philosopher who argues that sociology of philosophy is necessary to philosophers who wish to understand the social conditions of possibility of philosophy. In his study of the debate surrounding psychologism in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Germany, he argues that a central concern of the philosophical output produced during this period was with boundary work: that is, redefining the boundaries of what can properly count as philosophy, in order to safeguard an institutional place for philosophy against the foray of psychology at the time. This is an important insight into philosophical practice, I believe, as the assumption of self-grounding that shapes the philosophical field requires that philosophy continuously reflects on what it is, especially in historical periods in which the dominion of philosophy is under attack or is being challenged.

    This partially explains why this approach is of importance to those of us who study modern Chinese philosophy: given the relatively recent emergence of philosophy as an academic discipline in the Chinese context, philosophers, at least until recently, have tended to be particularly concerned with the necessity to legitimize their own work. Modern Confucian philosophy therefore has the double task of justifying itself as philosophy, on the one hand, while also providing some legitimacy for the Confucian project itself within the philosophical field. Such concerns are not peripheral to their philosophical work, but directly inform the content of their philosophy. When modern Confucians distinguish between rationality and the faculty of liangzhi 良知 which enables human beings to directly intuit the good inwardly, their goal is not purely disinterested; the issue of the legitimacy of “Chinese philosophy” or “Confucian philosophy” always lurks behind.

    While I am worried that this reading might simply give ammunitions to European philosophers who hold the position that this is simply not “real” philosophy, my position on this is issues of boundary work tend to be more explicit in the case of Chinese philosophy because they have to continuously defend their very existence along with the claims that they make. This is less so for an analytic philosopher working in – say – Boston, who can safely assume the readers won’t be concerned with the issue of whether what is being discussed is indeed philosophy or not. But this does not entail that boundary work is not an integral part of what analytic philosophy is about. It’s just that writing from the hegemonic center of knowledge production, legitimacy is simply not as much an issue. But central to analytic philosophy is the question of boundary work; one only needs to take a look at the heated debates that followed the publication of the 2016 New York Times article by Jay Garfield and Bryan W. Van Norden to notice this significant facet of philosophy as it is practiced in the United States.

    New Confucianism is a privileged object of study from a sociology of philosophy perspective, not only because as I mentioned above it is in constant need of legitimizing itself, but also because its aim is to a great extent outspokenly social. New Confucians tend to make use of philosophy in order to bring about social changes (at least that is how they present their work; which is another social aspect of their work). But this doesn’t mean sociology of philosophy can only be applied to philosophical schools that display these two factors; any philosophical school can in theory be made the object of a sociological analysis. In fact, until today, sociology of philosophy has mainly been employed in studies of European philosophy; apart from Matthew Chew, a sociologist from Hong Kong Baptist University, this approach has not been applied to the East Asian context.


    What are the possible benefits of studying and discussing New Confucianism in Europe?

    One of the most basic benefits of studying New Confucianism in Europe is to open up a discursive space for Chinese history and philosophy in European institutions. While many are of the impression that China is closed to the outside world, the extent to which the Euro-American region has been discussed in China is unparalleled in Europe, where studying China is still for the most part confined to the Area Studies. North American institutions of higher learning are doing slightly better on this front, although their philosophy departments too remain a stronghold that is difficult to penetrate for those of us who are interested in Chinese philosophy.

    This doesn’t answer the question of whether European philosophy can benefit from an engagement with New Confucianism, though – which is not exactly the question you asked, but it is one of the possible implied meanings of it, I thought. And as I said above, I don’t think New Confucianism necessarily has to be of benefit to European philosophy to be worth our attention. The reasons can be historical, of course, although this won’t be of much interest to philosophers in Europe. Yet to answer the question of what European philosophy can learn from non-Western philosophy always leads us to some precarious position, as one finds oneself in a what Amy Olberding (among others) calls a double bind: either non-European philosophy is made to fit European philosophical methods and standards, in which case it runs the risk of becoming a mere reiteration of a more recognizable argument in the history of European philosophy, or it should find its own methods and standards, in which case the danger is that it becomes entirely irrelevant to European philosophical concerns.

    Still, if pressed to point out some ways in which the study of New Confucianism can benefit European philosophy, I would mention two specific ones. On the one hand, getting a sense of how philosophy is practiced outside the hegemonic center of knowledge production gives a sense of the tensions between universality and particularity, place and placelessness, that I regard as inherent in the philosophical enterprise, but that can be more easily left unquestioned if one works from within the hegemonic center, where philosophical practice can rely more readily on the assumption that the particular is universal. This is not the case for modern Chinese philosophers, however; fusing the universal with the particular, in their case, could not function as an underlying assumption, but had to be argued for, thus becoming one of the most important problems around which their work took shape. In sum, tensions between particularism and universalism in philosophy, I would suggest, can be better understood if one takes a detour and see how philosophy is experienced on the outskirts of the hegemonic center. I borrow the notion of “détour” from François Jullien, here, but the goal, for me, is not that of understanding the choices each tradition made from the very start, but rather that of grasping the social conditions of possibility of philosophical knowledge production and the relations of power that are reproduced or produced through it, which is precisely that which I find conspicuously absent in Jullien’s work.

    A second goal, which unlike the first is more particular to New Confucianism, would be that of questioning what philosophy itself, and more particularly the social practice of philosophy, entail. Because for most New Confucians, philosophy, while being undeniably tied to a particular form of abstract reasoning, remains a way of acting upon the world; it is always political, in the broadest sense of the term. In mainland New Confucianism, philosophy has actually become political in the narrowest of senses: various factions attempt to get the ear of the emperor, so to speak. This was not exactly the case for the previous New Confucians though. Some of them had ties with important political figures, to be sure (Liang Shuming and Mao, for example), but many of them were extremely critical of politics as it was then practiced, and on both side of the Taiwan Strait after 1949. Philosophy provided them, and this is what I want to argue in the postdoctoral book I’m working on, with a means to reinvent the world, if not in reality at least symbolically through the language of philosophy. This is, I argue, not unique to New Confucianism, but New Confucians have tended to be more outspoken about this, and in this sense help us, I believe, to question what the practice of philosophy, understood as taking place in the social realm, entails.