Monday, 23 April 2018 06:00


The assumptions of the confusion between authoritative and authoritarian.
Two essays by Youzhong Sun and Sor-Hoon Tan look into the contacts between the political ideas of Confucius and Dewey.

Published in ”Il Manifesto”, 16th April 2008

    At first sight, it seems quite strange that the interpretation of Confucius` texts and the thought of the American philosopher John Dewey can yield a topic of political discussion regarding the idea of democracy today. However this relationship has been studied by eminent oriental scholars, like Youzhong Sun, chair of the School of 11lish in Beijing, and Sor-Hoon Tan, chair of the department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore.
    Dr. Sun in an essay included in the latest issue of the journal ”The Japanese Journal of American Studies” (2007, n. 18) reconstructs not only Dewey`s long stay in Japan and China from February 1919 to September 1921, but also the reception of Dewey`s thought in China from the 19th century to today. Dr. Tan in her volume Confucian Democracy. A Deweyan Reconstruction, recently published by the State University of New York Press, argues, with high argumentative skills and linguistic competence, the substantial convergence between Confucius and Dewey`s political ideas.
    Behind these sophisticated studies carried out by the two scholars, there is a crucial issue of outstanding historical and political consequence not only for the East, but also, and above all, for the West: the distinction between authoritarian and authoritative. While Dewey stayed in Japan for only three months, he spent over two years in China. This happened at an extremely difficult political time, caused by the incidents of 4th May 1919, seen as the first ideologically orientated mass movement in China`s history. The demonstrations and strikes, that shook Beijing and Shanghai, directed against the government`s attitude to give into Western imperialism and towards the modernization of the country, targeted Confucius, mistakenly linking him to traditionalism and despotism.
    The ”Movement of the 4th May” soon split up into two factions: one in favour of Dewey`s liberal democracy, whose main supporter was Hu Shi, and the other inclined towards Marxism. Dewey`s teaching however deeply influenced Mao, who studied and appreciated him from 1918 to 1920. Later on he gradually moved away from Dewey, because he thought the philosopher was too focussed on pedagogical issues rather than on economic factors. As is well known, due to a few events Dewey would be attacked by Maoism: these events were the so-called 1937 ”Dewey Commission”, set up to defend Trotsky from Stalin`s attacks, and the excessive wave of influencing politically the academic activities in China from the 1950s onwards. Dewey`s re-evaluation as a great political thinker started in 1980s leading to an ever-increasing list of events and conferences that culminated in the publication of his Complete Works. The latter becomes even more significant bearing in mind that Dewey`s major works had already been translated into Chinese many decades earlier.
    Bearing these premises in mind, it is possible to understand the importance of Sor-Hoon Tan`s volume, who, comparing Dewey`s and Confucius` thoughts, unveils the fatal misunderstanding brought about by the ”Movement of 4th May 1919”, that confused Confucian ritualism, based on the notion of ren (ideal of human behaviour based on the personal-cultivation of the human being) with legalism (another traditional trend of Chinese thought) grounded on the coercive and authoritarian aspect of law. Therefore the alternative was between an authoritative democracy, of Confucian-Deweyan inspiration, meritocratic and liberal, and an authoritarian government degenerating in a form of absolutism which carries out an inverted selection. The latter allows the most ignorant to climb up to power. Sor-hoon Tan shows, employing an accurate conceptual and etymological analysis, that the crucial notion of tianming (heaven`s mandate), should be considered, in the first sense, as immanent, and in the second as transcendent (a meaning which is not far from what in the West is considered as a power legitimized by God).
    Sor-hoon Tan thus introduces new perspectives that allow us to analyze not only Far East history, but also the western intellectual and political transformations that have taken place from 1968 onwards. Wasn`t the mistake that took place in 1968 in italy, Germany and Japan connected to the confusion between authoritarianism with authoritative, undermining the very basis of education, culture and civil life?


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