In the Name of Philosophy: Confucianism and the Loss of Sophian Purpose in the West

A common assessment of contemporary western philosophy asserts that in its search for abstract truth, it has become dogmatic, professionalized, and inaccessible. Scholars such as Wilshire (1990), Kupperman (2002), Hadot (2004), and Nussbaum (1997), have argued that while it is readily apparent that philosophy has largely surrendered its quest for wisdom, this has certainly not always been the case. These and others have suggested that a refocusing of western philosophy is required in order to meet its moral obligations of nurturing the ‘good life.’ Drawing out the implications of the above assertions, we find that we are left in a void in the west, without a guiding story to empower us in meeting the many challenges we face. The ‘examined life’ morally obligates philosophers and other thinkers to not only recognize this, but also to strive to offer a means with which to fill that void. Mikhail Epstein (2012) suggests a return to sophian purpose and offers the term sofiophilia to refer to the search for wisdom:

“Sofiofilia absorbs the practical wisdom of the ancients, as found in the Books of Job and Solomn’s parables, Confucius and Lao Tse, and, more recently, Montaigne and Pascal, Goethe and Leo Tolstoy, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. While philosophy has abandoned wisdom and turned into a rigid discipline which limits itself to the systemic organization of notions and a logical analysis of language, sophiophilia searches for new and non-academic venues of living-through-thinking.” (p. 240)

Taking a brief glance over the history of western philosophy, we find many indications that although it has shifted its focus to the search for abstract truth, its roots and much of its content are aimed at enabling meaningful lives and sound social structures. We see this, for example, in Plato’s midwifery and statesmanship, in the authenticity of the existentialists, and in the pragmatism of thinkers such as William James. It has been asserted by Kupperman (2002) that the overarching purpose of eastern philosophy is just that – to enable the cultivation of the individual and society, but in spite of this, it has been a recurring question in the west whether or not eastern philosophy is even a legitimate form of philosophy (Ni, 2013a:468). Considering western philosophy’s drift from its original sophian purpose, the question of the legitimacy of Chinese philosophy is obviously misguided.

The question that needs to be asked is not if Chinese philosophy is legitimate from the western perspective, but if there is an opportunity for us in the west to learn something about what philosophy should be and if that might encourage us to refocus our philosophical endeavors.The purpose of this paper, then, is to determine if the assertion is correct that eastern philosophy is mainly concerned with the cultivation of human individuals and their society. In doing this I will focus on a set of Confucian themes that roughly correspond to some of the main areas of western philosophical inquiry – truth, language, human nature, morality, freedom, democracy, and aesthetics. If it is true that eastern philosophy is concerned mainly with the cultivation of the person and society, then perhaps the contours of a transformative theory, so badly needed in the west, can be formed; perhaps we can find something that can provoke and inform an adaptation and re-appropriation by western philosophy of sophian purpose from other traditions such as Confucianism and from its own rich heritage.

If western philosophy has in fact abandoned its sophian purpose in the search for truth, the question arises how Confucianism engages the concept of truth. Rather than suggesting that truth is unimportant in Confucian philosophy, it has been asserted that there is no concept of truth at all, and is important to Chinese thought (Hansen, 1985:491-92). The assertion that there is no concept of truth is unsettling. Truth is a recurring theme in the western tradition (Hansen, 1985:491) and it is difficult to imagine a world without truth being the salient object of philosophy. Truth and language are closely related, so the absence of a concept and a specific word in Chinese for truth is telling, though not in the sense that it is somehow unimportant or inferior.

All of the major philosophical schools of China had a theory of language and names, but rather than being subjected to formal semantical analysis, names and words are used to announce and illuminate. As Hansen (1985) explains: “a pragmatic interpretation of classical Chinese is a more explanatorily coherent theory than a semantic (truth-based) alternative;” the absence of the concept of truth presents a different worldview more than the mere absence of a character in the language indicates (p. 493-94). Language is not logically analyzed or used to abstractly define or explain, but to actually do something. Language in general is linked to social behavior and the proper use of names enables the functioning of society (Hansen, 1985:505). For Confucius, it was critical to a harmonious society:

“If names are incorrect, speech cannot be smooth. If speech is not smooth, affairs cannot be accomplished. If affairs cannot be accomplished, ritual propriety and music will not flourish. If ritual propriety and music do not flourish, verdicts and punishments will not hit the mark. If verdicts and punishments do not hit the mark, people will not know how to move their hands and feet. Hence when the exemplary person uses a name, it surely can be spoken; and when spoken, it surely can be put into action. What the exemplary person requires about their words is that there is nothing careless in them.” (13.3)[1]

In this passage it becomes clear that the proper use of a language act is an essential aspect of the development of the person and the proper functioning of society. Rather than seeking truth and needing a word to express it, eastern philosophy uses statements of term-belief (Ni, 2008:2) which are reflective of and conducive to the goals inherent to a meaningful development. To this end, Confucius rectified many names for common use by re-purposing words and redefining their meaning. It also becomes clear in this passage that truth and language are interrelated with other Confucian concepts: language enables ritual propriety, which in turn enables harmony. It is interesting to note this interrelatedness through the use of language, with all of them depending on and informing the others. Thus, the rectification of names is a part of the meaningful and reciprocal cultivation and development of the individual and sound societal structures.

This interrelatedness suggests the difficulty in assigning any one concept primary importance over the others. Nonetheless, I would like to underscore the centrality of Confucian ideas on human nature. Although the Analects do not elaborate in detail what Confucius himself thought on the matter, it is an important part of later Confucianism. The views of especially Mencius and Xun Zi on human nature play a foundational role when considering individual and societal development. Mencius’ view is that human nature is inherently good, which he illustrates through the example of a child about to fall into a well. Anyone who sees this will rescue the child out of compassion, a not desire to be called a hero or because the child’s screams are uncomfortable (2A6.3).Mencius’ conception of the composition of human nature can be summarized in his ‘four hearts’ (translated here as feeling):[2]

“As for what they are inherently, they can become good. This is what I mean by calling their natures good. As for their becoming not good, this is not the fault of their potential. Humans all have the feeling of compassion. Humans all have the feeling of disdain. Humans all have the feeling of respect. Humans all have the feeling of approval and disapproval. The heart of compassion is benevolence. The heart of disdain is righteousness. The heart of respect is propriety. The heart of approval and disapproval is wisdom. Benevolence, righteousness, propriety and wisdom are not welded to us externally. We inherently have them. It is simply that we do not reflect upon them. Hence, it is said, ‘Seek it and you will get it. Abandon it and you will lose it.” (6A6.5-6.7)

When considering different Confucian views on human nature, it is essential to understand the respective definitions of just what human nature is. Mencius defines human nature as that part of being human that is distinctly human; the part that differentiates us from animals (Ni, 2009:103-104). This human nature is not set in stone, but is comprised of the incipient tendencies of the four hearts endowed by heaven at birth, that can either be lost or developed (3A1.2). Clearly, then, when Mencius claims that human nature is good, it is not to say that humans can do no evil, they can, but this is the result of environmental conditioning from culture or family (van Norden, 2008:xxxi). Mencius’ ideas are not the only Confucian views of human nature. Xun Zi, for example, considered human nature to be evil and based this on his definition of human nature as that part of being human that cannot be learned – the self-interested desires and appetites (van Norden, 2008:xxx).

It is important to note here, on a more general basis and in light of the discussion on truth and language above, just what purpose the Confucian theories on human nature should serve. In eastern philosophy, these are not only descriptive assertions of truth but are also pedagogic or normative tools meant to encourage individual development through the cultivation of the incipient tendencies (van Norden, 2008:xxix). Xun Zi’s view is thus not to be taken as a negative view of human nature, but a normative path to encourage development through recognition of the challenges of the world as it actually is. In spite of the different definition of human nature, both Mencius and Xun Zi believe that anyone can develop goodness; they simply have formulated different starting points for the journey. Humans have evil and good tendencies (or selfish and benevolent might be better terms), and the development of the exemplary person cultivates the benevolent and acknowledges the selfish. The innateness of the four hearts clearly indicates that Mencius thought that humans can be moral, that morality and the decision of what is moral are inherent to being human. However, it is through choice and achievement that morality is realized; we are born with moral tendencies, not manifestations.

The process of developing morality can be approached by asking not whether something is good or bad but rather to what kind of life will it lead; it is “actually more a recommendation of value and a methodological instruction about how to obtain the value” (Ni, 2009:106). This is a clear formulation of the idea that the development of morality is synonymous with the development of an exemplary person, and stresses the importance of human nature as the inherent starting point for that development. According to Mencius, this is done through reflection on virtuous feelings and the situations which caused them (van Norden, 2008:xxxiv-xxxv), beginning with family and then, like ripples in water, through the world (van Norden, 2008:xxxvii; xxxii).

We see here another part of the cultivation of the exemplary person: interpersonal social relations. This is expressed into the world through Li, or ritual propriety, which, in turn, is related to Ren, or human-heartedness (Ni, 2013:37, 49). Ren can perhaps be best described as an attitude of benevolence; a posture of concern about and for others that informs Li. As a set of ethical behaviors and etiquette informed by Ren, Li is thus the means of behaving in a loving and caring way and cultivating the exemplary person (Ni, 2013:49). Confucius makes the reciprocal relationship between Li and Ren clear in 3.3 when he says: “what does a person devoid of human-heartedness have to do with ritual propriety? What does a person devoid of human-heartedness have to do with music?” Music is harmony – thus it is suggested that human nature, as developed through language acts, human-heartedness, and ritual propriety, encourages harmony (Ni, n.d.:5).

The Confucian ideal of harmony, then, is clearly another interrelated aspect of cultivating the exemplary person. Zuo Zhuan explained harmony by saying that a good piece of music needs different notes in order to be enjoyable (Ni, n.d.:1). It can best be understood by pointing out the difference between harmony and conformity, or between constituency and participation (Ni, 2013:54) as simply being a ‘part of’ something or actively contributing to that something. A main difference between harmony and conformity is therefore the ability to maintain uniqueness – all parts of any harmonious composition retain their identity, whereas parts that merely conform are at risk of losing their identity. Rather than limiting the parts of the composition, as does conformity, harmony nurtures creativity (Ni, n.d.:1). This, however, is not to suggest that anything goes. The parts of a composite must share some common features. In Confucianism, this is the Way (Dao) (Ni, n.d.:2), for as Confucius said “people who have chosen different Ways, cannot make plans together” (15.40).

This seems, at first blush, to be a paradox – being on the same path seems to demand conformity at a very basic level. The resolution to this paradox lies in the very definition of harmony. How can harmony be harmonious if it only conforms to itself, if it does not contain different parts, if it does not include its opposite of commonality among its parts? Resolving the paradox is not what is important though – what matters is the question as to what is to form that commonality (Ni, n.d.:2). In Confucius’ time, it was the Way, but in our contemporary western world, what is it to be? Considering the pluralism of humanity and cultures of the world, this is a question that is well outside of the scope of this paper, but ritual propriety as a method of self-cultivation is one way to begin (Ni, n.d.:6). Although harmony is commonly understood to apply to the proper functioning of society, the development of the individual plays a key role, thus the importance of ritual propriety. Harmony is not something that can be established by laws or government; it is cultivated through moral development (Ni, 2013:53). This can perhaps be the commonalty that can contain the diversity of pluralism and allow harmony.

As an example of this harmony, we can examine the ideas on democracy of Henry Rosemont. Rosemont bases this on the differing ideas of personhood between the west and east – autonomous right-bearing or duty-bearing, respectively. He traces the western notion of an autonomous free, right-bearing, and rational individual to the Enlightenment, which he sees as problematic for two reasons. Firstly, he argues that the idea does not correspond to reality, that it does not describe the way things actually are. Rather than being an autonomous free and rational individual, we are dependent for our very existence on the community of other humans (Ni, 2008a:92). Secondly, he asserts that the demands of social life and individual rights are likely incompatible, and thus the Enlightenment notion suggests an inherent unattainability of moral maturity and leads to social problems (Ni, 2008a:92), Rather than a right-bearing Enlightenment person, he suggests the duty-bearing individual of Confucianism more adequately describes our “moral intuitions” and that we do not just fulfill roles in society, but that we actually are those roles, especially in terms of our relations to other people (Ni, 2008a:92). This is a form of democracy similar to that suggested by Rowe (2014) as being the greatest artifact and practice of the humanities. Democracy, like philosophy and the humanities, is a participatory event rather than a static entity; a relational process amongst and across participants. This is an illustration of Confucian harmony, with different active participants interacting and developing within the larger and ongoing event of society.

This form of duty-bearing harmony is difficult to imagine without freedom, and vice-versa. On the surface, there seems to be types of freedom: freedom from constraints, or negative freedom, and freedom to do what one wants, or positive freedom. Freedom in the Confucian tradition presents a higher form of freedom that transcends and includes both of the other types of freedom; it is simultaneously the freedom from restraints and the freedom to act. This does not imply license to do anything one desires but rather the ability to spontaneously do what is right within societal constraints. Confucius describes this:

“At fifteen, I had my heart-mind set on learning. At thirty, I was able to take my stand. At forty, I had no more perplexities. At fifty, I knew the mandate of heaven (tianming 天命). At sixty, my ears were attuned. At seventy, I could follow my heart’s will without overstepping the boundaries.” (2.4)

Spontaneity means without thinking, without having to make a decision based on reason; it is a natural and higher freedom. As the above passage shows, Confucius attained this ability at the age of seventy, after a long path of development. This ability is the embodiment, as second nature one might say, of the four hearts of human nature, as described by Mencius (Ni, 2002:3). It is a cultivated spontaneity ofritual propriety and human-heartedness expressed through effortless action. This higher freedom is the way the exemplary person contributes as the duty-bearing person to the harmony of society.

This spontaneity begins to reveal the aesthetic nature of life. This is confirmed in the Analects 11.26 when Confucius asked some disciples what they would do if their worth was recognized. Three of the disciples indicated that in one form or other, they would want to serve the greater community, either through governing a state or as an official. Zeng Dian, however, waited patiently, finished playing a song on his zither before answering, and then said he would spend a spring day enjoying leisure time. His relaxed manner illustrates the spontaneous freedom just described, and is perhaps in some ways symbolic – springtime is the time of renewal and growth, and spontaneously participating in that rebirth illustrates the blossoming of spontaneity and the ability to effortlessly do what is right. This is confirmed by Confucius as he would choose to join Zeng Dian in his springtime activities (Ni, n.d.a:3). When other passages in the Analects are considered, the attitude taken by Zeng Dian can be seen as asserting the aesthetic spirit of Confucianism to strive to live as a work of art. In 7.6 Confucius said: “Set the will on the Way (dao道), hold firm to virtue (de 德), lean upon human-heartedness (ren仁), and wander (you游) in the arts (yi艺)” (7.6). Likewise: “Take inspiration from the Songs, stand on the ground of ritual propriety, and achieve perfection with music (yue乐)” (8.8).

The idea of life as art asserts the importance of the development of the individual more than perhaps anything else in Confucianism. Art was not considered to be merely the fine arts, as it is today, but life itself: “The learning of the arts is a transformative and creative process in which the person becomes an artist of life and at the same time creates his or her life artistically” (Ni, n.d.a:5). On this view, life is a process of creation and transformation that shows the marriage between philosophy (indeed all of the humanities) and development. Seeing life and art in this way clearly reveals the loss of this perspective in western philosophy (indeed all of the humanities). With this, we have returned to the original questions of this paper.

Considering the broad range of concepts within Confucianism, it is difficult to assert that any one part is the central support for the claim that it is, as a whole, concerned with the meaningful development of individuals and sound social structures. Though I have covered only a few aspects of Confucianism, and those just on the surface, it is my feeling that they provide a framework with which to approach the central questions of this paper. The topics we have engaged – truth, language, human nature, morality, freedom, democracy, aesthetics – are all traditional areas of inquiry for western philosophy. Through this brief examination, it is clear that Confucianism does in fact aim through these philosophical disciplines to enable the development of meaningful lives and sound social structures. Locating the heritage of western philosophy in the striving for the ‘good life’ and wisdom in these same disciplines, the professionalization and dogmatization of western philosophy raises the obvious question – what happened and how are we to respond to this loss? It seems obvious that a transformation of philosophy from a theoretical and abstract pursuit of academia to a practice and a way of life is required; a reappropriation of our sophian purpose will have to occur.

Rather than being able to offer a prescriptive or normative theory on how to meet this moral obligation, this paper has led to a conclusion that should be seen only as an interim step in that larger project: eastern philosophy offers, at the very least, a reminder but perhaps also suggestions as to how and where the love of wisdom can be re-appropriated as a practice into the western tradition. Based on this, questions on the legitimacy of Chinese philosophy (Ni, 2013a:468) are revealed as being largely misguided and a remnant either of ethnocentric or colonialist attitudes. This should no longer be tolerated as proper philosophical method, for as Socrates said “the greatest good of a man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living” (Plato, 38a). Philosophy must return to the examined life and a broader view of the philosopher as anyone who strives to lead that examined life (Hadot, 2004:275). This is a challenge and a call to action to all philosophers, indeed to thinkers of any stripe.

Works Cited

Hadot, P. (2004). What is ancient philosophy?. Cambridge, Mass. [u.a.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Hansen, C. (1985). Chinese language. Chinese philosophy, and “truth”. The Journal of Asian Studies, 44(3), 491-519.

Kupperman, J. (2002). Naturalness revisited: Why western philosophers should study Confucius. In N. B. Van Norden (Ed.), Confucius and the Analects: New Essays (pp. 39-52). New York: Oxford University Press, Incorporated.

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—. (n.d.a). Life as Aesthetic Creativity and Appreciation: Confucian Aim of Learning.

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—. (2008). Confucianism and democracy: Water and fire? Water and oil? Or water and fish? In defense of Henry Rosemont’s view. In M. Chandler, & R. Littlejohn (Ed.), Polishing the Chinese mirror: Essays in honor of Henry Rosemont, Jr (pp. 90-109). New York: Global Scholarly Publications.

—. (2008). The Language of Dialogue and Confucian “Rectification of Names”.

—. (2009). A comparative examination of Rorty’s and Mencius’s theories of human nature. In Y.

Huang (Ed.), Rorty, pragmatism, and Confucianism: With responses by Richard Rorty (pp. 101-116). Albany: State University of New York Press.

—. (2013). Understanding the analects of Confucius – a new translation with annotations. Draft of 12/01/2013.

—. (2013a). The changing status of Chinese philosophy. The Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 40(3-4).

Nussbaum, M. C. (1997). Cultivating humanity: A classical defense of reform in liberal education. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Plato (2002). Apology. In G. M. Grube (Ed.), Five dialogues (pp. 21-44). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub. Co.

Rowe, S. (2014). Remembering the Humanities. Unpublished manuscript.

Van Norden, N. B. (2008). Introduction. In Mengzi: With selections from traditional commentaries (pp. xiii-xliv). Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.

Wilshire, B. W. (1990). The moral collapse of the university: Professionalism, purity, and alienation. Albany: State University of New York Press.


[1] All translations of the Analects used in this paper are by Ni (2013), and all citations refer accordingly

[2] All translations of Mencius used in this paper are by van Norden (2008), and all citations refer accordingly


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