A Ku Indeed!

Will the Real Confucius Please Stand Up?

Posted in Analects, China, Chinese Philosophy, Course Material, Pedagogy by Chris on January 24, 2008

Over at The Useless Tree and at Frog in a Well there’s a discussion about how to approach the teaching of Confucius. Since I’m teaching two courses dealing with Confucius this semester (one is a basic ethics course fitting in Confucius for a few weeks, while the other is a full semester seminar just on Confucianism), I figured I’d put up a post on it. There are two basic (and related issues) at work. One is the fact that the Analects is most certainly an accretion — the text was not all written at the same time and so was put together over a period, some stretching far after Confucius. So the question “Who is Confucius?” is an obvious one. The second is whether a text should be presented within its cultural and historical context.

I’ll come right out and admit it: I do very little with respect to situating the text within its historical/cultural context. In addition, I pay little attention to the question of whether the texts actually represent the views of one person, or many.

Some of the reasoning why I approach the text this way is simply due to being accustomed to doing it that way — this itself a result of my (analytically oriented) philosophical training. I don’t recall in graduate school a single moment when we (as the students) were given historical and cultural backgrounds surrounding any of the texts we read. We simply looked for the arguments, “tore them out” and put them under microscopes. Terribly non-historical, I’ll admit — we treated arguments as if they were timeless artifacts.

I tend to treat Confucius in a similar (if not so overtly sterile) fashion, though I do stress the inescapable fact that our readings of the text are historically situated. I start by treating the text as a puzzle — one that has to be reconstructed by the reader. Because it is written in the style that it is, highly metaphorical, disordered, partial, and aphoristic, there’s no doubting the fact that any “reading” of the text will be heavily interpretative, and as a result, readings of the Analects will tend to be extremely autobiographical.

Like Sam’s approach (at Useless Tree), this style of approaching the text says that as a teacher I’m more interested in what the texts say about us, and about our own approaches to life than I am in how accurately our attempts to reconstruct that text are reflective of the contexts in which they were presented (or even of the actual historically embedded intentions of the authors. This doesn’t mean “any reading will do” of course, but I simply don’t stress the demand to try to understand the texts in that way). Of course, I’m in no way devaluing the importance of this sort of approach — it’s simply not mine. (That’s not to say that I couldn’t add a bit more historical context to my own presentations of the text, because I probably could).

The second question concerns the personage of Confucius. Who is he, anyway? Was there one guy? Or many? If one, are the texts even reflective of him? Again, I’ll have to come out and admit that I’m not terribly concerned with the question, though of course it’s an interesting question. When I or my students come face to face with the Analects (or any other text similar in nature), I want one quasi-Heideggerian question to guide the approach: “should I choose this person as my hero?” Is this a person from the past whose approach to existence I want to appropriate and make my own? Do I want to relive this history? This seems important to me, because a truly authentic interaction with the Analects should play a part in a person’s face-to-face engagement with the question of how to orient him or herself in life. In struggling with Confucius, you struggle with yourself.

The “Confucius” being struggled with here is clearly a “personage” being put forth as an exemplar, as a possible “hero” to be emulated and through which one can engage in a kind of authentic “repetition” of a historical “way of being.” But whether this “way of life” truly belonged to one person, or a few, or many, seems immaterial with respect to the responsibility of the reader to engage with the text in the way I am proposing. Perhaps this might be more of an issue for, say, a Christian engaging the Bible. If the question is “should I make Jesus my hero?” then, given the importance (for Christians) of the actual divinity of the historical personage of Jesus, it might be more important that “Jesus” (in the sense of what is being presented as a “way of life”) not turn out to be actually a reflection of an assemblage of individuals. Given that nothing turns on “Confucius” actually turning out to be spread out over numerous people/times, I don’t see anything of importance (again, with respect to my way of approaching the text) as relying on a specific way of answering the question.

That said, it certainly is nice to think of the whole system as belonging to the guy in the paintings, and also to the guy who seemed so clearly to have such an affectionate relationship with his students and, by extension, to those who are reading him.

One possible wrinkle: When you are thinking in terms of “your hero” it is perhaps psychologically necessary that this “conversation” you are having (your struggle with your own identity via your engagement with a person’s way of life presented in the text) be with another person (living or dead). When we think “how ought I to be?” it may be that you need to approach alternatives as presented by another person engaging the same question. But I could be wrong here in the sense that “person” needs to be “one person”. Perhaps a Confucian rejoinder might be that conversing with a “person” really always involves, in the end, talking to at least two entities (the minimum for a relationship). As a result, conversing with an admitted “assemblage” would be fine. On this last point, I’ll have to think a bit more!

4 Responses

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  1. Million said, on January 24, 2008 at 11:29 am


    Even with my familiarity in dealing with historical and social contexts, (broadly conveived that is) I haven’t been convinced they always matter. For your purposes that is. Sure, there may be a historically correct view of who Confucius was that can be peiced together through painfully scruplius scholarship, but you’re more concerned with the theoretical side of moral philosphy. Why sweat it? Especially in dealing with a man who was so geared toward learning, personal betterment, and the like.

    I think you’re dead on regarding the “personage” issue too. If it turns out that the big C was less like you had envisioned then it may be harder to present him as the ideal exemplar, but he’s still – in one respect or another – responsible for influencing your line of thought.

    UNLIKE with Christianity, I’m not so sure the big C was as committed to the existance of there being one dogmatic truth (i.e. the Bible is truth and so is the Trinity). There’s room in Confucanism for big C to have been wrong and he points this capacity out with everyone.

    So long as you aren’t trying to say “Confucius was historically X,” retain your commitment toward a moral philosophy approach, and appeal to the most fundamental aspects of Confucanism I don’t think you have any problems. That’s what I liked about how you dealt with him. Instead of focusing on what big C was you focused on what he could be/could have been.

  2. eyeingtenure said, on January 24, 2008 at 3:37 pm

    Teaching the historical context of a philosophy, in my experience, tends to reinforce a student’s self-righteous superiority over historical peoples and contexts.

    Teaching the history of medicine tends to call on students to laugh at the old belief in humors and devil possession for viral or bacterial infection. We feel, as a result, so superior over our ignorant ancestors. Or, for example, that washing your hands wasn’t all that needed back in the Dark Ages.

    It doesn’t have to be that way with any discipline, but most classes in that kind of context tend to lean in that direction, anyway.

    You’ll avoid this, I’m sure, but this chrono-egoism or whatever is going to be a factor.

    Just an general observation.


  3. Chris said, on January 24, 2008 at 5:53 pm

    That’s true, but the flip side is that sometimes that egoism can rear it’s head it you go the non-historical route. The student will just start assuming that his/her own framework of reference or interpretation is the only one that matters, since no competing one is ever introduced.

    Still, it is true that in some instances what you say is true. Too much information about Aristotle reveals that he believed some ridiculous (but given his time period pretty advanced) ideas about biology. Or, it reveals that he believed in natural slavery. As a result, students ignore his philosophy, thinking that he is a moron not worth their time.

  4. eyeingtenure said, on January 24, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    From the brief class on psychology last semester — mandated by the People’s Republic of California — I remember distinctly that a student suddenly accepting a new way of looking at things is the least likely consequence when rattling the student’s assumptions.

    Much more likely:

    1. Reactionary Stance: the student states flaws in the new information. If finding none, the student states some anyway.

    2. Ignoring the New Information: the student simply disregards it for nonrational reasons. It cannot be, the 19-year-old believes. I know it not to be true, as my life as taught me so.

    3. Accepting, with Modifications: the student ignores or throws out choice elements his core paradigm disagrees with, reservedly embracing the husk that remains.

    There are some more that slip my mind. Nonetheless, I find that the best way to inoculate against students dismissing out-of-hand radical ideas is to introduce this on the very first day.

    I think I may have commented to this effect before on this site. If so, disregard it.


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