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Confucian China in German social thinking: Hegel and Weber

Early modern thinkers such as Leibniz, Wolff, Justi, Bilfinger, and Voltaire, among others, imagined Confucius to be an exemplar of philosophical and ethical Enlightenment. Confucianism, as they conceived it, advanced the realization of a higher form of ethical and political reflection that could orient and inform European endeavors at achieving Enlightenment.

In contrast to this progressive and reflective interpretation of the Confucian paradigm in rationalizing Enlightenment discourses, German philosophy after Wolff and Justi—in Herder, Kant, and Hegel—construed Confucius as a reactionary and moralistic proponent of a fossilized form of customary moral life and Confucianism as a conservative political ideology of “Oriental despotism"9 There were exceptions to this interpretive tendency: Friedrich Schlegel, bringing to mind Enlightenment arguments about the role of ethics in directing politics in Confucian China, explicitly rejected the Oriental despotism thesis, noting—much as Leibniz did—the power of morals and laws to limit arbitrary and absolute power.10 Nor did Schlegel envision Chinese history as static continuity and uniformity, as Hegel did. Rather than construing China to be without history, Schlegel portrayed it as a chaotic and unstable history of revolutions, natural disasters, and foreign invasions.11

The model of Oriental despotism as it developed from Montesquieu and (more ambiguously in) Quesnay to early twentieth-century Germany was often associated with capriciousness, decadence, and “feminine” weakness in the European imagination about Islamic and other Asian worlds.12 However, this idea was as much a reaction to the authoritarian obedience to absolute power and the abuses of the European ancien regime as to the reality of the “Orient.” It is an idea that had earlier sources in Montesquieu and Pufendorf, and which was explicitly linked with the project of biologically justifying racism and white superiority in philosophers such as Christoph Meiners (1747-1810) who influenced Kant’s racial anthropology, and that still influences contemporary Western views of the East.13 Confucian China was subsumed under the one-dimensional category of Oriental despotism without recognition of the particularities and structures of Chinese political and ethical life that challenge such a reductive classification.

Hegel’s thinking about China in his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History is the highpoint of the political-theological differentiation of the West and the East that continues to structure Western philosophy’s self-understanding. Chinese ethical-political life is in his account dominated by external despotic and bureaucratic powers, and Western social and political organization as the achievement of freedom. Unlike Leibniz or later Driesch, Hegel lacked appreciation of the ethical self-organization of the community and the mediation of powers, promoted by Confucian moral-political reflection and having affinities with aspects of his own ethical-political thought, at work in Chinese society.

Hegel stereotypically delineates the “Oriental world” through his claim that in it “only one is free,” namely the ruler who has absolute arbitrary authority, and the many are reduced and leveled to undifferentiated regulated masses:

The Orientals do not know that spirit, or the human being as such, is intrinsically free; because they do not know this, they are not themselves free. They only know that one [person] is free, but for this very reason such freedom is merely arbitrariness, savagery, and dull-witted passion, or their mitigation and domestication, which itself is merely a natural happenstance or something capricious. This one is therefore a despot, not a free human being.14

Hegel’s visualization of “Orientals” and the Orient sweepingly encompasses ancient Egypt and Persia, traditional India and China, and Islam. Despite their regional differences and historical transformations, such as the relatively late emergence of Islam, Hegel connects these forms of life with a lack of selfconscious or self-reflective subjectivity (achieved only in the Christian West) and the endless repetition and bad infinity of a stationary and static existence characteristic of an earlier form of life whose time is past.

Hegel differentiated Asian forms of life by categorizing them through his dialectical method in addition to making sweeping generalizations about their unity. India and China are in Hegel’s conception the opposite poles of Eastern existence; while the former negates history by overextending the imagination in “fantastic” religion and poetry, the latter is ahistorical in lacking imagination in the merely empirical repetition of the practical history of families and dynasties that follow the same unchanging rhythm. It is relevant to note that the identification of the Orient with the exotic and fantastic has a long history in European thought. Kant identified Chinese culture and thought with the fantastic and the sublime in the form of the grotesque in his Observations on the Beautiful and the Sublime (1764), as discussed further in the beginning of Chapter 4.15

Georg Anton Friedrich Ast (1778-1841), the philosopher and philologist influenced by Schelling and best known for his work on Classical philology and hermeneutics, articulated one of the first comprehensive developmental histories of philosophy in his Outline of a History of Philosophy (Grundriss einer Geschichte der Philosophie, 1807). Ast distinguished in this work, which follows the pattern of contrasting “real” and “ideal” philosophies across the history of philosophy, the realisms of the Middle East from the idealisms of East Asia, describing Tibetan religion as an idealism of the imagination (Phantasie) and Chinese practical pedagogical thought as forms of an idealism of the understanding (Verstand).16 Asian discourses are still not systematically excluded from philosophy by Ast and function as a precursor to European developments in philosophy from Greece to modernity. Philosophy is in his work not yet fully separated from other forms of thought, whether religious or practical, and it is still not conceived as exclusively Occidental. The same ambiguous portrayal of Asian philosophies as simultaneously non-philosophy and proto-philosophy can be found in Hegel’s assessments, which are not universally negative, in his posthumously published lecture-courses on the history of philosophy, philosophy of history, and the philosophy of religion.

The Chinese are not distinguished by idealism (Ast) nor by the fantastic and the imagination (Kant) in Hegel’s account, which unfolds what will become the standard image of the prosaic pragmatic character of the Chinese. Chinese history is, according to Hegel, an “unhistorical” mundane history because it is the repetition of the same content in the endless cycle of family life and paternal government. Each generation is continuous with and the same as the last. The dialectical moment of departure and individuation is missing that is the condition for the establishment and formation of new families and forms of social-political life. Chinese history is ahistorical in a double sense: in its unchanging repetitive historical process and in its historiography and historical reflection. Neither proceeds through form, infinity, ideality, and intellectual reflection to the height of the concrete historical thinking that Hegel perceived, in his philosophy of history, culminating in the modern Germanic world. It is in this world that “the human being as human being is free.” Hegel’s history of spirit is the formation of individual human freedom that is realized in Christianity and Western modernity:

The Germanic nations were the first to come to the consciousness, through Christianity, that the human being as human is free, that the freedom of spirit constitutes humanity’s truly inherent nature.17

It was the Greeks who first discovered freedom through reason and realized thinking to be Mnemosyne, the mother of the muses representing productive memory and reflective remembrance. It was Christianity that dialectically realized the freedom of the whole concrete person in Hegel’s narrative. Hegel’s philosophy—through the twists and turns of spirit in Occidental history—is a remembrance and reconstruction of how freedom is perfected.

Hegel depicted historical progress through images of circling and spiraling rather than through the image of a linear development. Nevertheless, despite this divergence from the typical understanding of progress, his conception of history presupposes a dialectically emergent hierarchy of forms of life from the primitive to the modern. From this developmental historical perspective, culminating in the Western freedom of the individual in the constitutional monarchy of modern Prussian society, Hegel advocated the pictorial and pre-reflective character of Chinese thought and denied that there can be philosophical and conceptual thinking in traditional China. Hegel’s negative assessment of Chinese thought is notorious. It profoundly structures the Western philosophical dismissal of Chinese and other non-Western forms of thought to this day.

To summarize Hegel’s discourse concerning China, Chinese thought and culture are interpreted in Hegel through the lenses of: (1) “Oriental despotism” in which the ruler alone is free in the use of arbitrary paternalistic power, (2) the supposedly pictorial and nonconceptual character of the Chinese language and Chinese ways of thinking as evident in the Yijing ШШ-, and (3) Chinese thought being proto-philosophically bereft of the labor, rigor, and universality of the concept.

The practical immanent orientation attributed to Confucianism in Hegel’s account is a familiar refrain in Western philosophy and social theory. Albrecht von Haller, the pioneering Swiss biologist, described the teaching of Confucius as “cold” in the late eighteenth-century for not recognizing the truth of the higher “second life” (that is, the life of spirit), and knowing solely obedience to the Emperor and not obedience toward God.18

The image of Confucianism as an immanent practical teaching is comprehensively articulated by the sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) in Confucianism and Daoism (Konfuzianismus und Taoismus, which appeared in 1915 and was revised in 1920).19 This work is part of Weber’s classic portrayal of the sociology of religion and the economic ethics of the world religions. It has exerted an extensive influence in the twentieth-century Western understanding of China and continues to inform, and its merits debated, in contemporary interpretations of capitalism in China and East Asia.

Weber interpreted “world-affirming” and “optimistic” Confucianism as a “religious ethic” that evolved into the bureaucratic institutional ethic of imperial China. The Confucian this-worldly ethos, relying on a conception ofhuman nature as essentially good, encouraged a “practical rationalization” of social life limited by its being a practical art of the possible directed at adjustment to the world: that is, pragmatic appropriateness, accommodation, tolerance, and passive harmony that limit prospects for actively transforming and reorganizing the natural and human world.20 Confucian literati aimed primarily at achieving a bureaucratic position and social status to which the pursuit of wealth, the means to live well as a person of status, was subordinated. Confucian techniques of the self therefore represented in Weber’s analysis an incomplete ascetic practice that is insufficiently otherworldly to form the sense of interiority, work, and reward that became the spiritual precondition for the formation of Western capitalism and Western modernity through the ascetic regime of Protestant Christianity. In contrast, in Weber’s accounts of Hinduism and Buddhism, “world-denying” Indian ascetic religiosity was overly ascetic and consequently adverse to such developments.21

Weber conceived of Buddhism as a redemptive religion without God, and Confucianism as a religion lacking transcendence and redemption beyond the immanence of this life.22 Due to this deficiency, and it does indeed function as a deficiency in Weber’s comparative analysis of the formation of modern Western capitalism, Confucianism struggled to rationalize and overcome the redemptive and magical qualities in popular Chinese culture offered by its opponents that it could never subdue: Daoism and Buddhism. Confucian rationality hierarchically distinguished itself from popular Chinese religiosity, while failing to rationalize and restructure it and ordinary life.23 Elements of magical thinking continued within Confucianism itself in its acceptance of the Yijing and divination. Limited by its sense of tradition and appropriateness, i.e., its lack of radicalness and comprehensiveness, Confucianism did not rationalize all cultural and social elements into an integrated systematic totality that informed every aspect of life.24

The Confucian intellectual-organizational system is incomplete from Weber’s developmental historical perspective both as a form of religiosity connecting the natural and supernatural and as a form of disenchantment, rationalization, and secularization that could produce a nontraditional or modern civilization. Weber acknowledges that the medieval Chinese and Islamic worlds were far more intellectually and technologically advanced than the medieval West. Nonetheless, it would be in the West that a comprehensively rationalized, bureaucratized and instrumentally organized, universalistic civilization formed with all of its associated pathologies.

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