Shengren – Chapter 4.9 – Nonsensical Philosophical Reading

“There is nothing paradox about Confucius. He is a shengren”

Confucius was a practical man, rather than a theorist. He taught human relations and their duties; he indicated what the superior man would be; he was interested in politics and good government. He was primarily a teacher of ethics. He was not a great philosopher. He cared little for metaphysical discussion or for explanations of the cosmos. When he was gone and commentators dealt with his teachings and the books which he transmitted, a Confucian philosophy arose. Confucius himself taught no religion. He avoided discussion of the supernatural. For him human conduct was the all-important thing. In his definition of the human relations, he did not recognize man’s relation to deity. […] He neither claimed to be divine nor founded a religion.[1]

– Frederick Starr, Confucianism

About the “philosophical reading”, Herbert Fingarette (1972), a professor of philosophy, remarked that the Church “tended to admire Socrates – as one who, though a pagan, was near saintliness in his dedication to the highest truths and most perfect life, but who, alas, aspired to what only Christian Revelation can bring to fruition.[2] Just as the European Christians re-visited Greek antiquity and re-wrote it according to their needs, Ancient China too was re-visited in order to “approximating Christian ethics” and “adumbrating Christian theology.” Fingarette believed that a new sort of scholarship was needed that was confident enough to get rid of Christian elements in Western translations of Chinese (or indeed any other East-Asian) scriptures, although the professor of philosophy did not hold back that certain “European background assumptions” would always remain. In other words, Euro-centrist views were there to stay with us for a long time. Fingarette suggested a more rigid textual analysis, a ‘philosophical reading’ (as opposed to a ‘Christian reading’). Without having studied Chinese language (again, not a requirement for the philosophical approach), Fingarette took – as seen from his references – James Legge’s translations of The Analects on his desk, and began to carefully extract the language of the biblical and sacred by replacing it with the language of the spiritual and mythical. “Holiness” was to stay in the text, yet the overall result was magical: “Human Community [was a] as Holy Rite […] by way of the magical that we can also arrive at the best vantage point for seeing the holiness in human existence which Confucius saw as central.” Fingarette continued that “magical powers” were with Confucius, and that The Analects included textual evidences for “superstition” and “the highest state of magical potency”.[3] Accordingly the sage’s words were “Magical utterance”, or word magic.[4] In the English-speaking world the philosophical Confucius or sagacious Confucius was much preferred to the magical Confucius or the holy Confucius. Early on, in his 1922 The Problem of China, Bertrand Russell rightly identified Confucius and Laozi as “Chinese sages”, and those Chinese writing styles “as the sages write”.[5] It is true that the mathematician and philosopher Russell did not shy away from occasionally juxtaposing Laozi as “the old philosopher”, but only in a sympathetic, brotherly way. Had he called them proper philosophers, Russell would have contradicted his own definition that philosophy had derived from the Greeks and was exclusive to European and American culture.[6] Most scholars of Chinese Studies today who have come around in China and the United States agreed that Confucius “like Gautama and Sokrates” did not teach a “systematic philosophy”.[7]

[1] Starr, 1930, p. 7

[2] Fingarette, 1972, p. viii

[3] Fingarette, 1972, pp. 3-7

[4] inAustin, 1961

[5] Russell, 1922, chapters IV, XI

[6] Ibid., chapter XI

[7] Zotz, 2000