Review: Mathew A. Foust’s “Confucianism and American Philosophy”

by Miles Raymer

Confucianism and American Philosophy

It’s been more than a decade since I walked into my first Philosophy 101 discussion group at the University of Oregon and noticed a diminutive, sparkly-eyed man at the front of the room. There’s no way I could have predicted how profoundly my life would change due to the influence of this man, who spent that term––and the following four years––helping me explore some of the most important questions humans have dared to ask. This man was Mathew A. Foust, and it’s been my distinct pleasure to win his friendship and follow his intellectual development from the mid-2000s to this day.

Foust’s newest venture, Confucianism and American Philosophy, is a useful primer for readers seeking connections between China’s premier philosophical tradition and some of America’s most celebrated thinkers. Foust’s goal is to expose and deepen the common intellectual fabric shared by these two disciplines, despite their separation by many miles and years:

It has not always been acknowledged that Asian traditions have played a role in the shaping of American philosophy. When the influence has been recognized, it has often been marginalized. In recent years, increasing interest in cross-cultural philosophical dialogue has coincided with amplified recognition of Asian influences upon American philosophy. Moreover, where direct streams of influence are unable to be established, scholars have identified conceptual consonances between Asian philosophies and American philosophy. (6)

From a non-academic perspective, Foust’s work appears to be more successful in revealing “conceptual consonances” than “direct streams of influence,” but these consonances alone provide ample ground for insight.

One general observation that is worth advancing before going any further is the importance of “cross-cultural philosophical dialogue” at this moment in history. Although Confucianism and American Philosophy is a distinctly academic text, it is undergirded by the notion that America and China, Earth’s two 21st-century superpowers, are in possession of rich philosophical inheritances that have more in common than we realize. Foust suffuses his text with a spirit of companionable collaboration––something our global leaders would do well to emulate:

Whatever our philosophical question, it would seem at least potentially beneficial to compare approaches and responses to the question borne from more than just one tradition…Confining ourselves to one tradition equips us with less input, yielding a narrower perspective than we might have if we were to expand our purview…The point is that more information is usually helpful, and comparing approaches and positions from different philosophical traditions is one way of obtaining more information. (2-3)

Confucianism and American philosophy are traditions teeming in wisdom and insights of both historical interest and contemporary value. I hope that this study will make a meaningful contribution to the worlds of Confucian philosophy and American philosophy and deepen the nexus between the two. I hope, too, that other scholars will join me in broadening this comparative horizon. (17)

Having taught in China himself, Foust knows firsthand how much Americans and Chinese people can gain from one another, despite our notable differences. His approach is profoundly humanistic, centering on ideas and problems that all humans have in common, while still allowing for culture-specific interpretations of and reactions to those ideas and problems.

So, which ideas and problems have captured Foust’s interest? Confucianism and American Philosophy is comprised of five essays, each of which posits a question to the reader and then explores how Confucians and Americans might try to answer it:

With whom should we be friends? When is civil disobedience justifiable? How should we attain beliefs? Are we naturally moral? How should we act if we have committed wrongdoing? (130)

Each question is linked to a particular American philosopher (Emerson, Thoreau, Peirce, James, and Royce, respectively), with input from three Confucian thinkers (Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi) sprinkled liberally throughout. One will immediately notice the practical bent of these interrogations, which aligns perfectly with everything I’ve come to know and love about Foust’s philosophical praxis.

For the remainder of this review, I will briefly tour some of my favorite moments in the book, and then linger for a while on what I think is the most valuable idea contained therein. In his discussion of friendship as understood by Emerson, Foust forges a firm link between friendship and self-cultivation:

Self-cultivation is a long and difficult journey, in which friendships figure prominently. Of a piece with other aspects of self-cultivation, navigating one’s friendships carefully is crucial. While we do not choose our family, we do choose our friends. These choices are reflective of who we are, and our presence with our chosen company further contributes to the shaping of who we will become. (30)

Foust connects this insight with Confucius’s three beneficial types of friendship, as stated in Analects 16.4: “Befriending the upright, those who are true to their word, or those of broad learning” (29-30). It is difficult to overstate the importance of thinking critically about the friends with whom one spends time. If “you are what you eat” in the nutritional sense, then we might also say that “you become who you’re with” in the social sense. Good friends draw out our best selves, whereas bad friends drag us toward our lesser selves. The moral life is not just a matter of doing the right thing as much as possible given available evidence, but also of surrounding oneself with companions and interlocutors who will increase the probability of right action revealing itself and being consummated.

In the chapter on civil disobedience, we find another useful lesson regarding the importance of leading by example in the practice of government. Foust reveals this lesson with a deft comparison of two terrific passages from Confucius and Thoreau:

The Master said, “If you try to guide the common people with coercive regulations and keep them in line with punishments, the common people will become evasive and will have no sense of shame. If, however, you guide them with virtue, and keep them in line by means of ritual, the people will have a sense of shame and will rectify themselves.” (46)

Thoreau quotes in Walden, as the closing words of “The Village,” although he does not offer a hint of attribution: “You who govern public affairs, what need have you to employ punishments? Love virtue, and the people will be virtuous. The virtues of a superior man are like the wind; the virtues of the common man are like grass; the grass, when the wind passes over it, bends.” (46)

I don’t agree that legal punishments/regulations are inherently ineffectual, but I definitely think they ought to be minimized wherever possible. And leading by example only gets us so far, especially when perverse incentive structures are not uncovered and reformed. However, given the current state of global political leadership, it goes without saying that government officials could regain much dignity and deserved authority from tacking in the direction of Confucius and Thoreau.

Foust also pairs Confucian attitudes with Royce’s thoughts on atonement––a philosophical topic with which he has been preoccupied as long as I’ve known him. Of primary interest to me are “reconciliatory” theories of atonement:

Reconciliatory theories of atonement hold that the wrongdoer should act so as to restore a relationship or relationships in some way damaged by his wrongdoing, including his own relationships (e.g. with his community, with himself), and those of his victim (e.g. the victim’s relationship with himself and his community), sometimes including the prior relationship between the wrongdoer and the victim. (113)

Foust’s discussion of these theories is adequate, but could have benefitted from engagement with a contemporary practice seeking to address the problem of atonement in a practical fashion: restorative justice. I suggest this may be a good avenue for future inquiry into how Royce’s reconciliatory thinking can be applied in today’s justice system and society in general.

My final thoughts on this book will address the theory which made the deepest impression on me: Peirce’s “Four Methods of Belief Fixation.” I knew nothing of this theory prior to reading Confucianism and American Philosophy, and I found it a clever and imminently useful description of the means by which people establish and reinforce ideas about reality. The Four Methods are as follows: (1) the method of tenacity (repeating a belief over and over until it appears to be the only possible truth), (2) the method of authority (receiving beliefs from an established sociopolitical authority), (3) the a priori method (creating shared beliefs from social engagement with one’s fellow humans), and (4) the method of science (using empirical analysis and fact-based debate to form beliefs about the world that are––insofar as possible––independent of human observation or judgment) (65-7).

Peirce’s Four Methods provide an actionable framework for interrogating and improving one’s beliefs and the beliefs of others. Although it is a hierarchy with tenacity on the bottom and science at the top, one could argue that all of the Four Methods are useful and even necessary from time to time. For my part, I have immediately begun applying these concepts to my own beliefs and beliefs I encounter in the world, with positive results thus far. When trying to shore up an argument or strike one down, knowing from which of the Four Methods the belief in question obtains is an efficacious starting point, and a commitment to securing beliefs using the superior Method(s) inevitably leads to better thinking and communication.

Most important is the connection Peirce draws between the intellectual act of striving for better beliefs and the moral act of constructing one’s identity, which complements Emerson’s discussion of how friendship contributes to personal development. Foust quotes Peirce at length:

But, above all, let it be considered that what is more wholesome than any particular belief is integrity of belief; and that to avoid looking into the support of any belief from a fear that it may turn out rotten is quite as immoral as it is disadvantageous. The person who confesses that there is such a thing as truth, which is distinguished from falsehood simply by this, that if acted on it should, on full consideration, carry us to the point we aim at and not astray, and then, though convinced of this, dares not know the truth and seeks to avoid it, is in a sorry state of mind, indeed. (68)

Foust demonstrates Confucian resonance with this line of thought, illuminating an “important feature of Confucius’s habits of inquiry” as related to the method of science:

Recall once more Analects 7.22: “When walking with two other people, I will always find a teacher among them. I focus on those who are good and seek to emulate them, and focus on those who are bad in order to be reminded of what needs to be changed in myself”…The pursuit of knowledge is not simply about uncovering facts; it is about cultivating character. One misses opportunities of self-cultivation and growth when one refuses to undergo inquiry, no matter whether that refusal is due to self-absorbed tenacity, fearful compliance with authority, or comfortable meshing with the majority. Moreover, one misses opportunities of self-cultivation and growth when one rigidly marks off boundaries between those who are worthy of engaging in inquiry and those who are not, particularly if those boundaries are arbitrary or otherwise untenable. (78)

Reading Confucianism and American Philosophy reminded me of the importance of secondary literature in reviving old ideas for a new moment and a new generation, and of revealing the underpinning experience of our common humanity as it has been expressed in radically different times and places. For Foust and others like him, to do philosophy is to walk a path of active engagement with life that demands our best efforts of honest assessment and compassion in the moment, while simultaneously orienting us toward a future in which present problems will be solved and new ones will be addressed using insights gained from past successes and failures. This is the steady, often-thankless work on which civilization and intellectual progress rest.

Rating: 8/10