The Horizon of Modernity: Observations on New Confucian Philosophy in History and Thought


Ady Van den Stock

PhD defended at: 

Ghent University



My dissertation is intended as a contribution to the study of modern Chinese, specifically, Confucian philosophy, the emergence and continued relevance of which I attempt to situate in a historical context extending from the beginning of the twentieth-century to the present day. In the first chapter, I provide a critical overview of some prominent examples of discourse on the revival and reinvention of Confucianism and the Chinese tradition in contemporary China. I start out by discussing the position of the Chinese Communist Party vis-à-vis the return of Confucius to the post-revolutionary mainland and analyze the duplicitous attitude both the Party as well as intellectuals and academics who call for a modernized and selective restoration of Confucianism display towards cultural tradition, which they approach as both a self-sufficient source of (transcendental) “values” and a functional resource of (empirical) “interests”. I indicate that the apparent rebirth of historical and cultural consciousness following the de facto exorcism of the specters of Marx and Mao from the People's Republic is primarily run through with nationalist intentions and pragmatic motivations, and is predicated on an active forgetfulness towards the recent past, as well as on a tactical bracketing of the problem of modernity and the Communist Party's unprecedented embrace of capitalist strategies of development. As a result, the problematic relation between the difference represented by a culturally specific semantics and the identity of a fundamentally “wordless” societal structure is disavowed and repressed in a piecemeal and ideological remembrance of the past. Zhang Xianglong's Utopian proposal to establish “conservation areas for Confucian culture” is used as an illustration of the conceptual and practical difficulty of insulating cultural conservatism from the logic of development. I then go on to introduce Jiang Qing's much-debated, controversial project of “political Confucianism” and analyze the unstable distinction he draws between a “spiritual Confucianism” represented by Tang Junyi and Mou Zongsan, and his own vision of an institutionalized and authoritarian Confucian order. I argue that Tang's and Mou's categorical rejection of Marxism and communism and their initial attempts to establish an educational framework for the transmission of Confucian learning and Chinese culture at large through the Hong Kong New Asia College in the context of the Cold War, belie Jiang's sectarian classification of these thinkers as aloof, apolitical “metaphysicians”. In this way, I try to show that their appropriation of the dialectical philosophy of Hegel had an irreducibly historical dimension and cannot be explained away as a regrettable instance of traditionalist intellectuals being “epistemologically colonized” by Western thought. In the remaining portion of the chapter, I explore the implications of the fact that Jiang shares an explicitly anti-communist and largely Hegelian idea of Chinese culture as a simultaneously substantial and subjective Spirit in common with Mou and Tang, and trace the continuing impact of the paradigm of culture as Spirit in contemporary Chinese political philosophy, specifically in relation to culturalist rejections of democracy. In doing so, I try to demonstrate that a closer study of the thought of “spiritual” Confucianists can provide a critical perspective on the historical rootedness of current discourse on historical and cultural consciousness, and can clarify some of the conceptual contradictions which have accompanied attempts to ground the specificity and validity of Chinese philosophy for the modern world in a comparative manner.

The intention of the second chapter is to further historically situate the genesis of New Confucian philosophy as well as to retroactively contextualize recent narratives surrounding the so-called “Confucian revival”. The focus throughout this chapter lies on the problem of discontinuity, that is to say of time, or rather of a time specific to our present day and age. After the introductory section in which I reflect on the issue of tradition and (dis)continuity, I proceed by first sketching the broader historical background of the emergence of New Confucian (philosophical) discourse, something that was not yet adequately done in the first chapter, which had a more contemporary focus. I single out the period of May Fourth/the New Culture Movement and the way it has been remembered and interpreted by traditionalist thinkers such as the New Confucians in order to do so. Next, I approach the phenomenon of New Confucianism in the context of the modern reclassification of knowledge. Firstly, I reflect on the transformation of Confucianism into a form of philosophy and the structurally conditioned abstraction from history involved in this process. Secondly, I analyze the position of New Confucian philosophy towards science developed in the wake of the 1923 debate on science and metaphysics and outline what the intellectual historian Wang Hui has described as the “turn towards the subject” occurring in the aftermath of this epochal debate. Throughout, I refer to Tang Junyi's and Mou Zongsan's dialectical criticism of Marx, Marxism and communism, and give some indications of their indebtedness to German Idealist philosophy (specifically Hegel) as a resource of sociopolitical ideas and a vehicle for reversing what they took to be the disastrous course of the materialist dialectic. In their recurring and trenchant criticisms, as I try to demonstrate via a brief discussion of Feng Youlan's social philosophy in the light of the work of the Marxist theorist Moishe Postone, “Marx” and “Marxism” can be taken as signifiers for modernity in general. The specific problem of the historical discontinuity resulting from modernization, which for Tang and Mou was symbolized by revolutionary Chinese communism, is put forward as revealing the inner tension in their work between the theoretical presuppositions they comparatively ascribed to the Chinese tradition on the one hand, and the ontological baseline stemming from their critique of modernity on the other.

Finally, in the third and last chapter, I further elaborate on the philosophical consequences of the above-mentioned contradictory tension with reference to Tang Junyi's, Mou Zongsan's, as well as Xiong Shili's “purely philosophical” works, in which their historical and sociopolitical concerns have been to a large extent sublimated into conceptual tensions and notional fault lines. In the process I try to connect and merge the two main aspects of my object of research and thus of my own dissertation, namely the historical dimension captured by the question concerning the structural and semantic impact of modernity and novel forms of discourse on neoconservative intellectuals in twentieth-century and contemporary China on the one hand, and the philosophical dimension focused on delineating the conceptual repercussions of the specific conception of modernity articulated in the work of the modern Confucian philosophers I have studied on the other. In the first section of this chapter, I investigate the fluctuating boundaries drawn by Xiong Shili and Tang Junyi between science and philosophy and try to think through the significance of the residual category of “wisdom” as a form of knowledge by contrastingly invoking the work of the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. I then proceed by addressing some of the crucial paradoxes and aporias which have beset their attempts to establish various ontological and epistemological unities in the context of their own endeavors to both accommodate and keep a certain distance from the scientific worldview and endow Confucian philosophy with a comparatively established identity distinct from both Western philosophy and Buddhist thought. In the case of Xiong, I mainly focus on his magnum opus, the New Treatise on the Uniqueness of Consciousness from 1932, while at the same time drawing attention to his somewhat understudied sociopolitical writings. Tang's work on the other hand is presented through the medium of a relatively little-known essay from 1943 entitled Introduction to the World of Sense. The second and largest part of this chapter is devoted to studying and situating the thought of Mou Zongsan philosophically as well as historically. I outline the trajectory from his earlier works on logic and epistemology to his mature “double-leveled” ontology articulated in Intellectual Intuition and Chinese Philosophy and Appearance and Thing-in-itself inspired by Kant, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein, and try to establish the sociopolitical background of his philosophical undertaking with reference to his concept of the “self-negation of moral reason” and his lifelong mission to overcome Communist ideology through philosophy.