Towards a Comparative Metaphysics between Pragmatism and Confucianism (published in Humanitas Asiatica, Vol. 1, No.1 (December, 2000): 95-115)

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Shaun O'Dwyer

University of New South Wales, Australia

Originally published in Humanitas Asiatica, Vol. 1, No.1 (December, 2000):
95-115 (now defunct)

I shall begin this paper with a rather controversial claim: that pragmatism
and Confucianism are both humanistic philosophies at heart, and that each
has something to offer the other in criticising an erroneous individualism
in popular varieties of libertarian thought. For some contemporary
Confucians, this may appear to be a strange claim. The received
understandings of pragmatism identify it with a scientistic reformism in
which "the ends justify the means", or with a relativistic, insouciant
liberalism. Neither version of pragmatism is palatable for Confucianism.
However, by discussing the metaphysics and social philosophy of the
pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, I hope to show that these received
understandings of pragmatism are to a large extent incorrect. I shall argue
that there are also some important philosophical convergences between
pragmatism and contemporary Confucianism that merit further study. In this
paper I propose to investigate one area of convergence between pragmatism
and Confucianism: their respective metaphysical commitments. In their
Thinking Through Confucius, David Hall and Roger Ames make some promising
moves towards a comparative study of the metaphysical commitments of
Confucianism and Deweyan pragmatism. But they rather disappointingly
dismiss Dewey's ideas for their alleged scientistic and naturalistic bias.
[1] Here, I shall sketch out the metaphysical commitments of contemporary
Confucianism and pragmatism, showing how their respective social
philosophies follow from these commitments. But I shall attempt in the
course of this sketch to show that Dewey's thought is not, on closer
inspection, guilty of the crude naturalism attributed to it by Hall and
In this paper I shall argue that the categories of relations and
events are central to the metaphysical commitments of both pragmatists and
contemporary Confucians. This has important implications for their
respective understandings of the individual moral and political agent and
her relationship to the community or polity. The convergences between these
understandings are worth pursuing, in reinforcing the commitment of
Confucians and pragmatists to struggle against the false individualism of
our age.
This paper will consist of four sections. In the first section I shall
outline a non-foundationalist perspective on the function of metaphysical
inquiry that is amenable to both pragmatists and Confucians. In the second
part of the paper, I shall give some consideration to the metaphysical
commitments of what pragmatists and Confucians both consider to be a
mistaken social philosophy, the philosophy of atomistic individualism. In
the third section, I shall turn to consider the metaphysical commitments of
Deweyan pragmatist and contemporary Confucian social philosophies. In the
final section, I shall consider how these commitments permit a more
realistic comprehension of the manner in which individual moral and
political competence is cultivated, in contrast with the way such
competence is theorised by individualist social philosophy. In doing this,
I shall highlight some possible directions for pragmatists and Confucians
to pursue in social philosophy.

1. The Need for Metaphysics

A number of pragmatist philosophers, including Charles Peirce and John
Dewey, wrote extensively on metaphysics. In contemporary Confucian
philosophy, interest has recently been taken in the implicit metaphysical
commitments of Confucianism.[2] But neither metaphysically inclined
pragmatists nor Confucians have sought to reaffirm the kind of
foundationalist conception of metaphysics that has been criticised by
pragmatist philosophers such as Richard Rorty. [3]
Bearing in mind Rorty's criticisms, I would still insist that
metaphysics has an important function to perform. The theoretical analyses
we develop of our physical, organic and social worlds are supported by
implicit understandings about the nature of the identity of existents and
states of affairs in the world, and the nature of their relationships with
each other. There are basic categories in common and expert usage through
which those identities and relationships become intelligible (for example,
essence or form, matter, substance, events, relations and so forth). These
categories are not immutable or a priori. Rather, they have evolved through
custom and through advances in philosophy and the sciences. But what
dealings does metaphysics have with these categories?
Following Dewey, Raymond Boisvert has suggested that we understand
metaphysics as providing not a foundation but a "groundmap for criticism".
It clarifies and criticises the categories that allow inquirers to render
their world intelligible in its physical, organic and social dimensions.
These categories ideally allow "as comprehensive a grasp of reality as
possible" so that they may become "signposts which help guide our
exploration of the territory". But such categories are open to criticism
and revision as new states of affairs are discovered in the world, much as
maps are open to revision once new, hitherto unknown geographical features
are discovered. [4]
However, metaphysical categories do not constitute the nature that
they are used to make intelligible. We are a part of a nature or world that
we have in very large part not made. While we are sufficiently resourceful
to adapt parts of nature to our needs, we must also adapt ourselves to what
Dewey calls "the hard course of events" in nature, "that pays so little
heed to our hopes and aspirations". [5] We have to be prepared to
acknowledge that the categories through which we comprehend our world may
turn out to be fallible, as unexpected turns of events frustrate and
constrain our received ways of comprehending it. Ignore such contingencies
and we become mired in error, much as a mapmaker who fails to take into
account newly discovered terrain produces maps that are an ongoing source
of error for users.
It is clear in this regard that some metaphysics literally get things
wrong, and that theoretical understandings of the world proceeding from
those metaphysics are going to be awry as a result. For example, prior to
the late nineteenth century, it was widely held that living things existed
by virtue of their realisation of largely invariant forms and ends
predetermined for them by nature. Value attached to existents that
realised these forms, while deficiency attached to existents that deviated
from them. This metaphysics supported a biology that was found to be in
error in the decades of pioneering research in palaeontology and biology
following the publication of Darwin's Origin of the Species. Biological
phenomena and discoveries in palaeontology that had persisted as anomalies
for this older biology became intelligible as a result of the metaphysical
revisions occasioned by the Darwinian Revolution.
Pragmatists and Confucians have similarly argued that the character of
the metaphysical commitments of different social philosophies also makes
the difference to whether they foster mistaken theoretical understandings
of the social world or not. But the effects of such theoretical
understandings are not confined to disputes between philosophers. As Dewey
writes in Experience and Nature, "The more sure one is that the world which
encompasses human life is of such and such a character…the more one is
committed to try to direct the conduct of life, that of others as well as
himself, on the basis of the character assigned to the world"[6]. This
dictum applies to mistaken metaphysical positions, as we shall see

2. The Metaphysics of Atomistic Individualism

Let's now consider a metaphysical position criticised by both pragmatists
and contemporary Confucians: the metaphysics supporting atomistic
individualism in social philosophy. This metaphysics identifies existents
primarily in terms of their separation from each other, and makes the
question of their subsequent relationships a problem for analysis. Mind and
body, mind and world, subject and object, individual and society are
comprehended initially in dualistic terms. In different philosophical
schools, the problem to be solved is how they can subsequently come into
continuity with each other. In ontology, for example, a characteristic
problem concerns the status of values. Where nature is conceived of in the
quantifiable terms amenable to scientific analysis, and mind is conceived
of as an entity separate from nature, the problem arises of how to
characterise non-quantifiable things such as moral or aesthetic values, or
qualities like taste and colour. Are they "real" existents or mind
dependent qualities? One enduring solution to this problem typically
involves asserting that values and qualities reside in the mind rather than
in the world, and that "real" objects are to be found only in the latter.
In political and moral philosophy, different philosophical schools
have also grappled with problems arising out of the taken for granted
separation of individual from society. Let's briefly focus upon
individualism as an example of this. I want to make it clear that I am not
speaking here of the more sophisticated forms of individualism associated
with classical liberal philosophy. I am referring to a more crude but
popular variety found in libertarian philosophy and economics.[7] This
brand of individualism takes as its starting point the separate standing of
the individual on the one hand, already endowed with rationality and with
natural rights, and social association and the state on the other. The task
of political philosophy is then to define and justify the principles of the
kind of society within which the non-coercive preferences of the individual
will be secured against coercion. A conflict is recognised between the
individual and most kinds of actually existing social association, which
subject individuals to arbitrary tyranny or coercive obligations. Its
resolution is typically pointed to by highlighting the principles of a
"minimal state" in which property rights and freedom of contract are
enforced and coercion minimised to securing individuals' rights to pursue
their different preferences in safety.
The interesting thing to note about this conception of the individual
is its apparent neglect of philosophy of education. Libertarian theorists
are not so foolish as to assume that we are born in full possession of our
rational powers. It is rather that the education of the individual is
simply taken for granted in their theories. The outcome of this neglect is
a concept of an individual who is capable of making moral and political
decisions without reference to any kind of association in which those
capacities might have been inculcated. The individual so conceived is
assumed to be possessed of cognitive, moral and political properties
(rationality, virtue and rights) without reference to such associations.
Indeed, what emerges is the idea that such individuals choose to enter all
kinds of social and political association.
From this perspective, all social and political association is
conceived of in voluntaristic, contractual terms. Individuals already
constituted as rational individuals enter into social association with each
other, taking on roles as husbands and wives, employers and employees,
friends and so forth. Robert Nozick's book Anarchy, State and Utopia
contains a classic formulation of this kind of voluntarism. Within the
overall framework of a libertarian state, people are free to contract into
various kinds of social association, including communist, religious and
communitarian associations.[8]
The final thing to note is the rationalism of this doctrine. In spite
of its reputation as a kind of conservatism, it tends to be dismissive of
tradition and custom. The individual is not someone who needs the guidance
of habit and tradition in his moral and political practice. Instead, he
ideally makes resort to techniques of rational choice in deliberating over
what are the best forms of association to enter into, and how best to act
within them. Abstracted from the associative context of traditional ties
and obligations, the individual is assumed to assess commitment to them in
terms of whether they consistently maximise his preferences.

3. Metaphysics in Pragmatism and Confucianism

In contrast to the crudely substantive metaphysics that supports this
individualistic social philosophy, a metaphysics articulated around the
categories of events and relations supports the social philosophies of
pragmatism and contemporary Confucianism. This does not lead them to the
same conclusions in social or moral philosophy. In fact, the meritocratic
elitism of Confucian political philosophy and Deweyan pragmatism's
commitment to participatory democracy do not sit comfortably with each
other. But it does suggest some points of convergence.
For Dewey, pragmatism is concerned in the broadest sense with making
practice intelligent. [9] It is concerned with promoting those cognitive
and affective capacities through which people can become reflectively aware
of the connections between their actions and the consequences of their
actions in their moral and political lives. It is concerned with people's
capacity to adjust their habits or social practices so that their negative
consequences can be progressively controlled or eliminated, and more
beneficial moral and political ends can be projected and evaluated in
practice. Pragmatism seeks not to replace habit or tradition, but to enrich
them with the insights of experimental practice. Through such practice,
aspects of moral and political tradition can be subjected to critical
reflection when the need arises. Alternative forms of conduct can be
formulated as aims or "ends in view" which, when successfully experimented
with in practice, can eventually become incorporated into habits of conduct
and belief.
Education has been an ongoing focus of concern for pragmatism. It is
clear that there is a great divide between the practice of the sciences, in
which established beliefs are subjected to criticism and experimental
evaluation, and the practice of moral and political life, in which habits
and tradition take on an inflexible cast in the absence of effective
criticism. The cultivation of the virtues and habits of intelligent
character is thus considered to be a crucial task in pragmatism. Because
philosophy of education is so important for pragmatism, it has devoted a
great deal of energy to analysing the kinds of social relations by means of
which such character is produced.
In Confucianism, there is also a strong preoccupation with the problem
of education, and this has to do with the centrality that moral and
intellectual self-education has in Confucian thought.[10] But self-
cultivation is not an ascetic or quietist pursuit. Confucianism has a
strong humanistic orientation, for it has always argued that only human
effort can make the "way" or "Tao", the proper ordering of virtues and
values of goodness, truth and aesthetic harmony, prevail in society. [11]
Using Neo-Confucian language, Wei-Ming Tu describes this as "actualising
jen" (goodness, humanity). [12] The person who has morally and
intellectually educated himself fits himself to serve his society in
helping to bring about this state of affairs. A character ideal of
Confucian philosophy, the Chun Tzu (what Hall and Ames have defined as "the
exemplary person") is someone who, though possessing and becoming competent
in the virtues of jen and li (propriety) thereby becomes qualified for
public office or an intellectual vocation.
Confucianism is not only humanistic; it is also meritocratic. A humble
birth is no barrier to someone's becoming a Chun Tzu. Although there has to
be a certain degree of inborn goodness in someone if he is to become
virtuous, much emphasis is placed upon the kinds of social relationships
through which virtues can be acquired or imparted. But there are better or
worse kinds of relationships, evaluated in terms of whether they promote or
hinder this kind of education. So, just as with pragmatism, Confucian
philosophy devotes a great deal of energy to thinking through the kinds of
social relationships which promote this kind of character, and it views
moral and intellectual education as a continuous process. But what are the
metaphysical commitments that distinguish the social philosophies of
pragmatism and contemporary Confucianism? What difference do these
commitments make to the characters of Confucian and pragmatist social
In his book Dewey's Metaphysics, Raymond Boisvert claims that the
categories of relations and events play a "major and crucial" role in
Dewey's thought; they are the primary categories of his metaphysics.[13]
Hall and Ames claim that, "Confucian philosophy entails an ontology of
events, not one of substances".[14] But how are relations and events to be
conceptualised as metaphysical categories?
Dewey's metaphysics provides some pointers for how this work is to be
carried out. In his thought, relations can be viewed in terms of 1)
relations of parts to a stable whole, or form, and 2) relations of
existents to their surroundings or environment.[15] The life of a human
organism can be characterised in terms of ongoing relations between cells,
tissues and the metabolic processes that sustain an organism's life as a
whole. It can also be characterised in terms of the physical, biological
and social relations it has with different aspects of its environment,
within which it acts and is acted upon, draws nutriment and has, enjoys and
suffers interactions with other human beings. That a complex existent such
as a human being cannot be adequately comprehended at a biological level if
we have no sense for how it is constituted out of and sustained through the
dynamic organic relations described above has long been understood. But
there has been a lag in making similar acknowledgements about the kinds of
relations through which human social identities are constituted and
sustained in existence. As Dewey puts it, "The human being on whom we
fasten upon as individual par excellence is moved and regulated by his
associations with others…what his experience consists of, cannot even be
described, much less accounted for, in isolation." [16]
The concept of event takes centre stage in characterising the identity
of existents for both contemporary Confucians like Hall and Ames, and
pragmatists. As events, existents are conceived of as having an ongoing
history, comprised of relations of parts to wholes, which include both
relations internal and external to that existent. According to Boisvert,
events are "things which come about through the process of interaction in
time"[17], and which can be characterised as having a beginning,
developmental process and end. An inorganic entity such as a mountain can
be characterised as an event. Its growth, development and destruction are
describable in terms of very gradual geological processes internal to its
structure, in terms of the relations it has to the erosive processes of
climate and the geological processes of the earth's crust, and in terms of
the relations between these internal and external processes. Insofar as we
can comprehend the meanings of those relations, of the stable relationships
of parts to wholes and of the sequential ordering of causal conditions to
consequences, we are able to comprehend the form of that mountain. When we
are able to do this, "Events turn into objects, things with a meaning", to
use Dewey's words.[18] We are enabled by comprehending these relations to
make inferences about the mountain's past development, and its future
processes of growth and decay; in short, to develop our knowledge about it.

But according to the pragmatist interpretation, when events are not
objects of reflection and inquiry, they are characterised by an immediate
qualitativeness. They are experienced unreflectively for what they are; as
things had, enjoyed, feared, suffered, valued or disvalued. Contrary to the
charge of scientism levelled against pragmatism, pragmatists contend that
such qualities and values are just as much experienced traits of an event
or state of affairs, as are the more quantifiable relations that are the
objects of scientific knowing. When, for example we experience an
unfamiliar ritual as aesthetically beautiful, such a trait can be
attributed to this event just as much as the traits identified by a
disinterested anthropological analysis of it in terms of its historical
genesis and social functions.
Against the view that values and qualities belong to a private realm
of consciousness set over against a world of empirically verifiable states
of affairs, Dewey argues that "when life and mind are recognised to be
characters of the highly complex and extensive interaction of events, it is
possible to give natural existential status to qualities".[19] That is to
say, values and qualities are not the internal feelings or impressions of a
consciousness separated from the world, which can have no meaningful
relationship to things in that world. Nor are they the immutable traits of
existents considered in isolation from human agency. Rather, they arise in
interactions between higher organisms capable of communication and their
surroundings. Such organisms are capable of developing a capacity for finer
discriminating responses to aspects of their surroundings than other
organisms, as states of affairs to be sought out, held on to, cherished,
dispensed with or avoided. For they have developed through language the
capacity to share in the activities through which these states of affairs
are controlled, avoided or striven for, in light of collective awareness of
such qualities or values.
This can be regarded as a statement of a naturalistic pragmatist
treatment of values. Understood thus, it can also be seen to be quite
incompatible with transcendental philosophical treatments of values of the
kind criticised by Hall and Ames. Neither pragmatists nor Confucians hold
that important values such as norms are a priori, and that they are
subsequently instantiated through the agency of substantive
individuals.[20] Rather, such norms evolve in the course of interactions
between agents and their social surroundings. Persons become competent in
understanding these norms not by dint of their being essentially rational
or moral beings, but by cultivating such competence through relations with
others in a social medium. Such a process of cultivation is best
comprehended through the categories of events and relations.
Now of course it is a truism, and a banal one, to say that everything
is related and can be characterised in terms of events. Relations of atoms
comprise elements, relations of elements comprise chemical bonds, organic
and inorganic substances and so forth that all have ongoing histories. Or
we can say, again without much profundity, that societies are comprised of
relations of individual persons who all have their personal histories,
which unfold within the larger, "eventful" histories of institutions, etc.
But if we dig deeper, a serious deficiency becomes apparent in some
conventional understandings of the latter kinds of relations. It is the
same deficiency discussed in the second part of this paper. It is this
deficiency that qualifies us to regard the underlying metaphysics of
atomistic individualism as mistaken. That is, it is assumed that important
social ties and associations are comprised of somehow already constituted,
separate individuals who subsequently come into interaction with each
other. Moreover, it is assumed that such already constituted individuals
enter into events, to subsequently engage in social and political
interactions with other already constituted individuals.
The deficiency arises from the fact that little attention is given to
how the cognitive, moral and political characteristics of those individuals
are acquired, developed and conditioned by ongoing social transactions in
the first place. What both Confucians and pragmatists will say instead is
that it is only by means of already ongoing social relations, with their
inheritance of habits and traditions that individuality itself can develop.
They will argue that such development is a continuous affair, an event.
Moreover, it is again a truism that we encounter different kinds of
relations in our social and moral lives that we immediately assume to be
good or bad, meaningful or meaningless, aesthetically rich or sterile:
between persons, between persons and institutions or between institutions.
For pragmatists and Confucians, the question to ask is whether such
relations can be justifiably said to be good or bad, meaningful or
meaningless, aesthetically rich or sterile. And both are interested in
those kinds of reflective practices, in the lives of individuals or in
institutions, by which relations that are good, meaningful and
aesthetically rich can be brought into being, sustained in being and

4. Some Implications of a Shared Metaphysical Commitment

Let us now sketch some of the implications that these shared metaphysical
conceptions of events and relations have for the social philosophies of
Confucianism and pragmatism. We will begin with Wei-Ming Tu's assertion
that "the self as a centre of relationships has always been the focus of
Confucian learning". [21] Now as Wei-Ming Tu goes on to point out, this
focus can easily be misconstrued as requiring the submission of the
individual to collective conventions. The idea of the self as a centre of
relationships can be correctly understood both descriptively and
normatively. Descriptively, it highlights the idea that a person can only
cultivate herself by means of participation in ongoing relationships,
including family, community and political life. Through participating in
"an ever-expanding circle of human relatedness", the self acquires richer
moral resources for further self-cultivation. In learning to become a son
or daughter, a parent or citizen, a person has imparted to him or her an
ever-increasing stock of virtue and wisdom from which to draw upon in
contributing to the harmony of those relationships.
Normatively, the idea of the self as the centre of relationships
captures the idea that the cultivated self is a condition for harmonious,
just social relationships. The person must cultivate her own self morally
through significant social relationships such as the family as a condition
of being able to work upon improving harmony and justice in social
relations, which are seen as the outgrowths of this process of self-
cultivation. Yet what is being presented here is not an ideal of social and
political conformism. Established rituals and customs should be criticised
if they are no longer compatible with goodness, with jen. Moreover, as Hall
and Ames point out, the Chun Tzu, in being an exemplary inheritor and
bearer of his society's traditions and practices is well positioned to
reinterpret and respectfully modify them in the light of new circumstances.
In the Analects of Confucius, there are a number of instances where
Confucius and his followers reinterpret classic poetry in novel ways in
order to bring them to bear upon their contemporary moral concerns. [22] It
is these qualities that fit a Chun Tzu for moral and political leadership.
So the moral and political relational understanding of personhood in
Confucianism is by no means one that swallows the individual up in the
relations of the group. Rather, the capacity for innovative individual
agency in moral and political affairs is bound up with the quality of the
social relations through which such agency is nurtured or retarded in its
The idea that persons in terms of their ongoing identities are events
gives added purchase to the contemporary Confucian criticism of the modern
idea that individuals voluntarily assume social roles. The idea of a
substantive individual "behind the scenes" who assumes social roles as a
parent, citizen, employee or employer is part and parcel of the mistaken
atomistic individualism described earlier. It fosters a curiously static,
fragmented understanding of the self, which contrasts with the
developmental concept of personhood in pragmatism and Confucianism. As Wei-
Ming Tu puts it, "the dramatic image of the modern person who assumes a
variety of social roles is definitely unConfucian". Rather than saying, for
example, that an individual separately takes on the roles of son and father
in different phases of his life, he points out that "From my own
experience… I have always been learning to be a son. Since my son's birth,
I have also been learning to be a father and my learning to be a son has to
take on a new significance as a result of my becoming a father myself".
[23] So, to conceive of personhood as an event involves demonstrating
greater fidelity to the empirical fact of ongoing development and change in
actual human lives. It involves regarding individuality in a more
explicitly historical as well as relational light.
In pragmatism, the individual is viewed in light of the naturalistic
concept of "organism-environment" relations. Moral and political norms and
the capacities through which they are put into effect are not viewed as
being transcendental in nature. Nor are moral attitudes conceived of as
feelings or emotional expressions that have no meaningful bearing in
relation to empirical states of affairs in the world. Rather, they must be
viewed in light of the idea "that all conduct is interaction between
elements of human nature and the environment, natural and social".[24]
Human beings, including human minds are in nature, continuously engaged in
acting and being acted on by the various elements in an environment by
means of which they are sustained in life, and by means of which they are
enabled to participate in social life.
In ethics, Deweyan pragmatism focuses upon the issue of how character
and virtue are to be cultivated such that moral intelligence can become
possible. Intelligence, as I have said, refers to the ability to adopt a
more experimental approach to moral experience. Put simply, it means
learning from experience, and the accumulated experience of others, and
adjusting conduct accordingly. It also involves the ability to learn from
mistakes – to take note of the conditions of failures in moral conduct and
to adjust or reconstruct conduct in light of this recognition. The
cultivation of character and of virtues such as sympathy, open mindedness
or impartiality is at least partly in control of persons through their
participation in moral education and tradition. Taking into account the
sometimes-uncontrollable contingencies of moral situations, these virtues,
and our overall character as the "interpenetration" of our habits and
virtues, dispose us for the most part to deliberate and do well in such
Moreover, virtues "are not private possessions of a person. They are
working adaptations of personal capacities with environing forces". [25]
The social dimensions of these environing forces consist of the customs and
traditions of a society. Through them we have imparted to us our
intellectual, technical and moral habits. In this sense, the cultivation of
character and habit is inescapably relational. Our character and habits are
developed in a social medium, by means of the persons and institutions that
shape the formation of habits throughout our lives. But this is a social
philosophical perspective that does not overwhelm the individual in the
practices of the group. The agency for reform, for reconstruction in
established habits and practices lies in the individual. It is individuals
who come to experience doubt about an established moral habit or practice,
who make it the object of criticism and inquiry and who devote their energy
to changing it.[26] Dewey frequently acknowledges, however, that many
social institutions in their current state, including families and schools,
obstruct the development of such individuality.
It is emphasis upon this fact, that the kind of individual moral and
political agency described above is produced in the relational give and
take of particular social environments that gives education such a central
place in pragmatism. For pragmatism, the form of social association most
likely to promote this agency in political affairs is democracy. Democracy,
however, is not just understood here in terms of representative democratic
practices such as voting and parliamentary representation. It is also
understood in terms of educative practices of consultation, discussion,
argumentation and criticism in the formulation, evaluation and
implementation of policies, and in the evaluation of norms of political
conduct. The realm of such inquiry is argued to extend beyond the chambers
of parliaments to the face-to-face life of local communities, and the
function of evaluation is regarded as being the job of ordinary citizens as
well as of experts.
The fate of face-face-community life in a globalizing age is something
that both contemporary Confucians and pragmatists are grappling with today:
and in particular, the problem of ascertaining what it is that constitutes
the value of stable, enduring community life now that globalization is
intensifying pressure upon these associations. Yet the task before them is
a difficult one.
For it is not so much a self conscious ideology as an underlying
article of faith that the citizens of today's market societies are ideally
individualistic, geographically mobile, unburdened by ties to place or
association and capable of smoothly adjusting to and understanding rapidly
changing social, economic and technological conditions. The more one is
convinced at an implicit metaphysical level that the individual who
inhabits today's society is of such a character, the more one is willing to
accept, or participate in implementing, social and economic policies that
reflect such assumptions.
Yet there are, I have argued, good reasons for thinking that the
implicit metaphysical commitment lying behind these assumptions is
mistaken. It is arguable that commitment to it is having deleterious
consequences in moral and political life. Insecurity and incomprehension
concerning the nature of present economic changes has been expressed in a
number of ways: in widespread cynicism and resentment against political
institutions and figures; and, alarmingly, in rising support for
chauvinistic and racist political movements. We take it on trust that
citizens will be somehow capable of grasping these changes. We assume that
they will also be capable of justifying to themselves and to each other the
fundamental political principles needed for sustaining liberal democratic
societies through those changes—principles of liberty, equality of
opportunity and distributive justice. But we seem to have less of an
understanding of how stable community association might play its part in
educating its members so that they become as capable as they can of such


As I have shown, the metaphysical commitments of pragmatism and
Confucianism incline them to favour an educative conception of community in
their social philosophies, and to be critical of atomistic individualist
social philosophy. The metaphysical ground map being drawn up by both
pragmatists and Confucians is not, however, a map that legitimates the
staking out of anti-individualist, collectivist social philosophies.
Rather, as I have shown, it directs our attention to asking how competent
moral and political agency in individuals is produced and sustained by
ongoing social relations. But the value of certain kinds of relationships
and forms of community cannot be established by argument alone. It can only
be assessed, as a hypothesis, by empirical investigation and testing. What
I have sought to do in this paper is merely to clarify at a metaphysical
level some concepts that are potentially shared between modern Confucian
and pragmatist philosophies, and to sketch some of the shared social
philosophical commitments that follow from this convergence. Clearing away
the faulty dualisms in social philosophy that set individual and society,
mind and nature and values and facts at odds with each other is a
precondition for the hypothesis stated above to be adequately formulated
and given a fair hearing. But this work is only just beginning.

[1]David Hall and Roger Ames, Thinking Through Confucius (New York: State
University of New York Press, 1992), p.79.
[2]0See for example Hall and Ames, p.12-21.
[3]Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis: The University
of Minnesota Press, 1982).
[4]Raymond Boisvert, Dewey s Metaphysics as  See for example Hall and
Ames, p.12-21.
[5]Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis: The
University of Minnesota Press, 1982).
[6]Raymond Boisvert, "Dewey's Metaphysics as a Groundmap of the
Prototypically Real", in Larry Hickman (ed), Reading Dewey (Bloomington and
Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998), p.155.
[7]John Dewey, Experience and Nature (New York: Dover, 1958), pp.419-420.
[8]Experience and Nature , p.414.
[9]See for example Robert Block, Defending the Indefensible (New York: Free
Press, 1976); Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: New American Library,
1959); and Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia (Oxford: Basil
Blackwell, 1974).
[10]Anarchy, State and Utopia, p.397-435.
[11]For a recent excellent analysis of the concept of intelligence in
Dewey's thought, see Michael Eldridge's Transforming Experience: John
Dewey's Cultural Instrumentalism (Nashville and London: Vanderbilt Press,
[12]Wei-Ming Tu, Confucian Thought: Selfhood as Creative Transformation
(New York: State University of New York, 1985), p.57.
[13] Thus, Tang Jie-Yie writes regarding the Tao or Way: "it needs to be
enhanced or carried forward by man; it has to be affected by man through
practice". See his Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity and Chinese
Culture (Beijing: The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 1991),
[14]Confucian Thought, p.10.
[15]Raymond Boisvert, Dewey's Metaphysics, p.128, 139.
[16]Hall and Ames, Op.Cit., p.14.
[17]Raymond Boisvert, Dewey's Metaphysics, p.140-142.
[18]John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University
Press, 1927), p.188.
[19]Raymond Boisvert, Dewey's Metaphysics, p.139.
[20]Experience and Nature, p.166.
[21]Ibid., p.265.
[22]See Thinking Through Confucius, p.15-16.
[23]Confucian Thought, p.55.
[24]Thinking Through Confucius, p.182-192. For an example of this in the
Analects, see Book II, 11.
[25]Wei-Ming Tu, Op.Cit., p.58.
[26]John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct (New York: The Modern Library,
1936), p.22.
[27]Human Nature and Conduct, p.14.
[28] John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New York: Free Press, 1916),
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