Two stories crossed my screen in the past two days, reinforcing each other in unexpected ways.
The first is a piece in the NYT Sunday Review: "The Importance of the Afterlife. Seriously In it, Samuel Scheffler, a philosopher at NYU, makes an interesting case that " ...there are ways in which the continuing existence of other people after
our deaths — even that of complete strangers — matters more to us than
does our own survival and that of our loved ones." I think he is right in certain ways, though perhaps not in all the ways he thinks. And I think this fits into a Confucian world-view. Unfortunately, Schefffler does not bring Confucianism into this short piece. And I suspect, simply by dint of his intellectual background and training, that he will not employ ancient Chinese thought in the fascinating book he is soon to publish.
And that brings us to the other, seemingly unrelated, article: "Dao Rising: Chinese Philosophy Lifts Off in America." In this piece, Carlin Romano, reports on his visit to the International Society for Chinese Philosophy (ISCP) conference in July and marvels at the expansion of Chinese thought in academic philosophy departments in American college and universities. While his observations are true, from a thirty or forty year perspective, we should not get too excited about the rise of Chinese philosophy because it is still relatively underdeveloped and underrepresented in American academe and it has not made significant inroads into American thinking outside of a rather small intellectual circle. The conditions that gave rise to worries of a "crisis in Chinese philosophy" (pdf) in 2008 have not changed all that much.
So there is good news and bad news. The good news is that a person like Romano - that is, someone who is interested to learn - can now gain access to Chinese thought more easily than ever before. There is more and better English-language scholarship, both introductory and advanced, in Chinese philosophy than at any comparable point in history. But the bad news is that, as I have argued elsewhere, Chinese thought generally, and perhaps Confucianism in particular, is not reatlly catching on in the US outside of academic philosophy. And this is made obvious in Scheffler's piece.
Now, to be clear, I have nothing against Scheffler. I'm sure he is a fine scholar and a good person. I call out his op-ed here only to illustrate the absence of an impulse to turn to Chinese philosophical resources even when a line of argument makes such an invocation obvious and easy. Consider Scheffler's main point: knowledge that future generations of people will come after us lends meaning to our lives in the present. And that observation leads to this conclusion:
Similarly, I think that familiar assumptions about human individualism are oversimplified. Even though we as individuals have diverse values and goals, and even though it is up to each of us to judge what we consider to be a good or worthy life, most of us pursue our goals and seek to realize our values within a framework of belief that assumes an ongoing humanity. Remove that framework of belief, and our confidence in our values and purposes begins to erode.
This resonates with Mencius, and with Confucianism more generally. Menicus relates the story of sage-king Shun, who, ironically, had to disobey his father in order to secure a larger kind of filiality. His father, who was depraved, had commanded that Shun not marry. But if he did not marry, he could not carry on the moral project of ren - 仁 - (i.e. living a good life) into the future through his children. So, Shun went ahead and married, and had children, without informing his father. Thus, passage 4A.26:
Mencius said: "There are three things that are unfillial, and the greatest of them is to have no posterity. Shun married without informing his parents out of concern that he might have no posterity. The noble person considers that it was as if he had informed them."
Clearly, this is a "framework of belief that assumes an ongoing humanity," and values that ongoing humanity so much that the future authorizes an action in the present (disobeying your father) that would seem to violate other important moral principles (filial duty).
Schiffler is not necessarily focusing on "posterity" in the sense of a particular persons progeny. He is suggesting that a more general expectation of future humanity, strangers as well as progeny, is what matters. But the two points connect and reinforce one and other. A consideration of Chinese philosophy would add further depth and significance to Scheffler's argument.
But, alas, in spite of the rise of Chinese philosophy in the US, that possibility will not be fully developed because Confucianism and Daoism and Mohism and other strands of ancient Chinese thought are still rather marginal to public discourse in America.
Let's end on a positive note, however. As Romano suggests in his article, things are changing. Thirty years ago it would have been less likely that anyone would have even raised the possibility of bringing Mencius into Scheffler's analysis. Perhaps thirty years from now it will be commonplace....