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Buber’s Confucius: Between particularism and pluralism

Buber’s elucidation of Confucianism has its flaws and limitations insofar as it intermittently involves claims reminiscent of the Oriental despotism thesis in inaccurately identifying Confucianism with the absorption of the ethical into the political, and the subordination of the individual to the state. Buber adopted such a reading in his later essay “Society and the State” (1951), where he contrasts in an exaggerated fashion what he considers to be the hierarchically imposed order from above of Confucian political society with the spontaneous and organic free association of individuals that he discerns in the Daodejing Ж ШМ.60 Confucianism is associated with an external social-political order, while Daoism is identified with individual autonomy and ethical freedom. However, in the course of the same essay, Buber identified Confucius with Socrates. Both figures are construed as primary exemplars of pedagogical philosophers who emphasize the ethical cultivation and reformation of spontaneity, revealing his inconsistent position concerning Confucianism across his works. Confucianism is interpreted as both an external authoritarian social-political imposition on the individual, perhaps inspired by a certain reading of Xunzi and Confucianism’s bureaucratic social-political role in Chinese history, and as an internally motivated ethically and pedagogically oriented way of life.61

Although Buber expressed his own reservations concerning the merits of Daoism and Confucianism over his career, he critically confronted Rosenzweig in a correspondence during the 1920s concerning the latter’s condemnation of Daoism and Confucianism in The Star of Redemption. Buber states that these philosophies cannot be easily dismissed, as the “Daoist is no pagan,” and we must attend to the Confucian modesty with respect to heaven, or God as Buber, following Richard Wilhelm, translates tian:

Chinese reticence concerning God—“He who transgresses against tian” says

Kong [Confucius], “has no one to whom he can pray”62

Confucius, Buber continues to maintain in the Eclipse of God (first published in English in 1952), acts with humility toward others and heaven, without resentment or complaint, at the same time as only God (tian) actually understands him.63 Buber envisions Confucius in dialogue with others and heaven while speaking “of himself almost as unwillingly as of God.”64

Buber’s understanding of religion is a variation on the expressivist account of religion. Religious expression should not be understood as an abstract universal category that is strictly cognitively or conceptually knowable in its particular exemplars, as if there were an underlying religious law or truth that transcends all its concrete and singular incarnations. Rather, Buber suggests, religious expression is unique and singular as it is intrinsically bound to the concrete existential situation that it expresses.65 Religious anti-universalism does not entail in Buber’s account a particularism that would not exclude or devalue other particular forms of religiosity. In this sense, and in contrast with his friend and collaborator Rosenzweig, Buber’s pluralism allows him to interpret Confucianism as both humanistic and religious, albeit too lofty in its vision of ethical life for Europeans to follow and put into practice. The affinities between Confucius, Buber, and Feuerbach concerning the primacy of the “I-thou” relationship and the dialogical inter-relational character of human nature is noted by the Reformed theologian Karl Barth. Barth comments, in the context of his denial of the need for interreligious dialogue and with a sense of the superiority of his own religious commitments, that the humanitas of humanistic religiosity can be elicited from “quite different quarters, e.g., the pagan Confucius, the atheist L. Feuerbach, the Jew M. Buber.”66 Barth is concerned with demarcating the uniqueness and height of Christian revelation from these diverse spheres.

Buber responded to Barth’s comments in the afterword, “The History of the Dialogical Principle,” to the 1965 edition of Between Man and Man, remarking: “I cannot engage myself in this connection for the exalted, but to me somewhat alien, Confucian teaching or for the more anthropologically postulative than originally humane teaching of Feuerbach.”67 In Buber’s description of the history of the dialogical principle in his thought, Confucian ethics is yet again—echoing his claim about it being too lofty made four decades earlier in “China and Us”— kept at a distance in being “exalted.” His early explorations of Laozi and Zhuangzi that played—as will be discussed in Chapter 4—a role in the development of I and Thou are left unmentioned.

Buber’s position vis-a-vis Confucianism was inconsistent. However, his best attempts at interpretation recognize its communicative and interpersonal other- oriented character. Why was Confucius perceived to be a dialogical humanistic thinker of the “I-thou” relationship in such moments? The Analects is an example of dialogical philosophy for Buber and the Confucian discourse ofbenevolence can in particular be explicated as intrinsically dialogical and relational. It will be helpful at this point to consider this question by turning to another German thinker of this period who underscored the communicative character of the Confucian ethos.

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