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Time for another Enlightenment: Reconstructing Modernities with Chinese Philosophy and World Pragmatism

Upcoming special issue in Pragmatism Today

The next year will see the 30th Anniversary of the initial publishing of Heiner Roetz’s pathbreaking work Confucian Ethics of the Axial Age: A Reconstruction Under the Aspect of the Breakthrough Toward Postconventional Thinking (first in German in 1992, then in English in 1993) in which Roetz (inter alia) has offered a profound challenge to the (largely American-dominated) field of (neo)pragmatist informed intercultural comparative philosophy and sinology. A central component of Roetz’s argument regarding the need to “reconstruct” Enlightenment universality involves the claim that: “the Weberian as well as the pragmatic discourses [regarding axiological transcendence] fail to appreciate the fundamental nature of China’s classical philosophy in general and Confucianism in particular.”¹ Roetz locates the basic nature as a “crisis of the established context and the inherited tradition” and in recognizing that both “Hegel and Weber were wrong” in answering in the negative regarding the question whether traditional Chinese thinking “knew of any context-transcending reflexivity.” Roetz then goes on to question whether pragmatist-inspired sinology is wise to be rejecting the “very question [Hegelian-Weberian] as springing from an unjustified generalization of modern Western idiosyncrasies.” In recounting a particular sinological Hegelian’s response to the “esoteric Sinophilia”² of our time for “preposterously seeking ‘ways to the self’ in a culture one of the characteristics of which has been exactly not to develop a self-separated from nature,” Roetz asks whether in critically interrogating the works of authors such as Herbert Fingarette, Henry Rosemont Jr., David L. Hall, and Roger T. Ames and others representing a trend in pragmatist and sinologically informed comparative philosophy we might arrive at the conclusion that it is part of a deeply problematic assurance and legacy of post-Modern anxieties to be suggesting that:

China can teach us to recognize that the mentality of self, autonomy, and freedom has run its course. Together with the Chinese, we should recall our “communal rituals, customs, and traditions” and “inherited forms of life.” We should abandon the “myth of objective knowledge,” and adopt a “thinking that avoids the disjunction of normative and spontaneous thought.” Confucius especially presents us a model which for our world is perhaps "more relevant, more timely, more urgent" than it has been even in China herself.”³

Roetz developed this critique of a philosophical imagination of Confucius as “moral philosopher” who can save the decadent West further, for instance, in a 2013 article A Comment on Pragmatism in Chinese Studies, in order to suggest that some of the aforementioned pragmatist-inspired sinological methods, might not only be misrepresenting (or perhaps more charitably ‘creatively misreading’ Chinese philosophy, even perhaps in profoundly good faith in a postmodern-neopragmatist tradition of philosopher-poets bravely risking a “strong misreading” in the interest of creative advance), but in what may be an even more ironical gesture Roetz suggests that we may need to return to the hermeneutic circle again in engaging with the classical pragmatist tradition itself. The collaborative and singular work of Roger Ames has largely presented a post-modernist, communitarian, and neo-pragmatist reading of Confucianism as part of a broader movement of counter-discourses, or perhaps exit strategies to the European origin (if not domination) of the Enlightenment and its limitations for moral theory—e.g. Confucian role ethics certainly goes beyond the myth of the foundational individual and the sole sovereignty of nation-states. Though Roetz maintains that this approach cannot possibly do justice to the indebtedness of pragmatism to this very Enlightenment, especially its better angels of communicative rationality, radical political equality, and any other aspects of Enlightenment thinking practices, and the historically emergent ensemble of institutions that in some ways contribute to the realization and preservation of the freedom, flourishing, prosperity and dignity of all persons around the globe. The conditions requisite for sustaining ethical-political cultures promoting universality and a truly inclusive modernity for all peoples and nations are part a robustly convivial cosmopolitical vision, and why not trace this to at least in part the problematic legacy of the colonizer-colonized dialectical struggle that gets roughly and euphemistically shorthanded as “the Enlightenment.” It is in this spirit of philosophical reconstruction then that Roetz has proposed a different approach that pleads for the relevance of basic pragmatist tenets for an ongoing project of a critical modern “reconstruction” rather than a simple restoration of Confucianism or any other possible set of conventional values inherited from archaic traditions. This concrete ethical claim and specific hermeneutic task before us, as well as the other aspects of Roetz’s philosophical corpus, have been thoroughly engaged with before and criticized from various positions.⁴ So what we hope to realize here in this call for contributions is articulated in the following two-part aspirational aims of curating this specific issue of Pragmatism Today:

1) We wish to be reconstructing the complexity of this larger discussion concerning the plausibility and desirability of a sort of “second Enlightenment” freed from its Western-centric imperialist hubris and with the figure of Confucius as educator and moral philosopher at the heart of such a momentous hermeneutic undertaking, continue to expand the conversation about ethical universality beyond the bad universalisms haunting the hypocritical deployment of human rights discourse in the past and ongoing in the neoimperial present. Although we could surely trace these discussions much further back, we do well to highlight a particularly resounding intensification of this philosophical conversation to the year 1987 when Roger Ames and David Hall published Thinking Through Confucius and all of the debates surrounding that text and its methodological proposals became part of a philosophy and cultural politics of ars contextualis.

2) In understanding how this debate, regarding amongst many other issues at least the need for a clear-eyed approach to China as method, that is as a philosophical culture offering alternative resources capable of realizing a “post-conventional” modernity on its own terms, largely freed from the transcendental pretenses and ontological anxieties of the liberal West, we hope that contributors will find the opportunity to be creatively reflecting on just how it is that pragmatist elements might facilitate more effective intercultural understandings, or otherwise be ethically generative in projects seeking to “reconstruct” viable ethical and political philosophies from classical Chinese sources. Simply put, how is pragmatism as a philosophical tradition and method of thinking still relevant to unearthing what Chinese philosophers might have to say from the Warring States Period contributing to bringing conceptual clarity and ethical resolution to our uneasy global present? Answering these and related questions, and hopefully avoiding the all too frequent and scandalously amorphous “road-blocks” to inquiry that John Dewey lamented in his preface to the inaugural publication of the Philosophy East & West written in Waikiki in 1951 during the early stages of the Cold War, would seem to require that at the very least we take seriously Roetz’s challenges to be more fully acknowledging the provincial elements of much of pre-existing pragmatist literature, and perhaps to proceed more radically from a temporal register of modernity (or perhaps better ‘contested and sometimes conflicting enculturated modernities’). With such a theoretical recognition of the diverse plurality of contributing “chronotones”⁵ foregrounded we might hope to avoid any conservativism regarding past institutions or the valorization of certain entrenched ritual grammars of society in reimagining universality as a central value in the field of global ethics. By submitting the received past traditions and more recent discourses regarding universalism to a deep “hermeneutics of suspicion” we might in this issue also hope to remain alert to the lost potentials that a “hermeneutics of trust” might reclaim for us—that is by listening carefully and in relational humility to the words of wisdom that the living tradition(s) of Confucianism and the ever evolving, communicative ends-in-view of “World Pragmatism” might be voicing to our shared globalized subjectivity formation in this age of increasingly profound precarity and disjointed world solidarity.

Please send your manuscript to Joseph Harroff (jharroff@american.edu) and ¼ubomír Dunaj (lubomir.dunaj@univie.ac.at)

Deadline for submissions May 1, 2022

The special issue is to appear in June 2020.

Editorial team:
Joseph Harroff (American University, Washington D.C.)
¼ubomír Dunaj (University of Vienna)

¹ Roetz (1993), p.2.
² Roetz refers here to: TRAUZETTEL, ROLF. 1977. “Individuum und Heteronomie: Historische Aspekte des Verhältnisses von Individuum und Gesellschaft in China.“ Saeculum 28, no. 3: 340 ­ 64.
³ Ibid., p.2.
⁴ Hall, David, L. – Ames, Roger T. (1995): Anticipating China. Thinking though the narratives of Chinese and Western Culture. Albany: SUNY; Jullien, François (2004): Detour and Access, Strategies of Meaning in China and Greece (Le détour et l'accès). New York: Zone Books; Jullien, François (2014): On the Universal, the Uniform, the Common and Dialogue between cultures (De l'universel, de l'uniforme, du commun et du dialogue entre les cultures), Cambridge Polity; Heubel, Fabian (2021): Was ist chinesische Philosophie? Kritische Perspektiven. Hamburg: Meiner
⁵ See Massimiliano Tomba’s Insurgent Universality: An Alternative Legacy of Modernity (Oxford University Press, 2019), p.14 for more on how “anachronistic institutions are reactivated in a new configuration of the present; and to show how that reactivation makes it possible to trace an alternative legacy of modernity” beyond reductive and imperialist, hegemonic forms of universalism.


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