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To what extent Confucianism is a humanism, in the Western meaning of the term?

I propose to tackle this question by framing it this way: what are the similarities and differences between Confucianism and Western Humanism?

By “Western Humanism” is meant a philosophical tradition developed in the West, starting from Ancient Greek philosophical period, revived during the Renaissance*, and also the Enlightenment philosophical period, and finally continuously pursued since then in Europe and the U.S. by many philosophers or scientists (notably Paul Kurtz) and associations (e.g. Humanists U.K, Council for Secular Humanism).

*"The Renaissance era has the reputation for rediscovering the classical world and fostering humanism in the West." (Shook, 2020)

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    You can always find similarities and differences between any two things. Feb 19, 2023 at 8:38
  • 2
    Please, avoid mixing Humanism and Renaissance humanism: "very broadly, the project of the Italian Renaissance humanists of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was the studia humanitatis: the study of the humanities. This project sought to recover the culture of ancient Greece and Rome through its literature and philosophy and to use this classical revival to imbue the ruling classes with the moral attitudes of said ancients" Feb 20, 2023 at 10:22
  • In china, Confucianism was "the ancients". Feb 20, 2023 at 10:25
  • "humanism, stresses the importance of reason and knowledge." humanism (generic) of Humanism? "Two noteworthy trends in Renaissance humanism were Renaissance Neo-Platonism and Hermeticism, which through the works of figures like Nicholas of Kues, Giordano Bruno, Cornelius Agrippa, Campanella and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola sometimes came close to constituting a new religion itself. " Feb 20, 2023 at 10:27
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA I think he is refering to civic humanism. That is what I assumed in my answer and got no complaints about that. Although strictly speaking maybe it cannot be called a proper philosophy. But this is also disputed for Confucianism (The portrait of Confucius as philosopher is, in part, the product of a series of modern cross-cultural interactions.) so...
    – user64708
    Feb 20, 2023 at 13:38

3 Answers 3

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EDIT after chat discussion and some research. In short, Confucianism and Humanism have both fundamental similarities and fundamental differences at their core. While both deal in depth with both individual and social behaviour they differ on their emphasized goal, Confucianism is targeted at the collective, whereas Humanism is at individual development. This could have a cultural/historical motivation, which only comparative philosophy research can resolve. For more details, see below.


I would not call Confucianism a collectivist philosophy or Humanism an individualist philosophy, although they both have indeed given rise to political collectively and individualist political regimes, but we are talking about foundations here:

  1. Both have a deep social component. Confucianism is clear about this, Humanism on the other hand had as key motivation the value a person could give as an individual to public society (bold mine):

[..] civic humanism is a historiographical construct. As conventionally employed by scholars, the term refers to a group of thinkers who emerged during the period of the Italian Renaissance, especially in Florence, and who were committed to public engagement (in theory as well as practice) and whose values were fundamentally antithetical to the medieval past.

  1. Both have a deep individual component. Again, Humanism is clear about this, in Confucianism, on the other hand obedience is not submision, but rather morally based:

Confucianism, despite supporting the importance of obeying national authority, places this obedience under absolute moral principles that curbed the willful exercise of power, rather than being unconditional [Wikipedia].

Confucius was adapting filial piety to a wider manifold of moral behaviors, honing his answer to the question of how a child balances responsibility to family and loyalty to the state [SEP].

Now to the differences. According to A Confucian Approach to Human Rights: The historic meeting between Asian and Western cultures snags, close to its crux, on a clash of philosophies. [..] To the Western eye, Confucianism seems ritualistic and paternalistic [..] To a Confucian, the Western [philosophy][..] leads to extremes of conduct. Furthermore, and this is purely speculative, both have extremely different contextual and geographical origins which could explain this difference on emphasis:

  1. Christianism was deeply rooted in the West at the time Humanism appeared, therefore collectively the inherited post-medieval society was already pretty organized, so no major philosophical needs on this front.
  2. On the other hand, Confucius lived in the Spring and Autumn period, a pretty chaotic period of ancient China, therefore the emphasis on the collective was mandatory for successful emerging philosophies.

Now for the academic consensus. From the SEP, the modern interpretation of his [Confucius] views has been complicated by a tendency to look back on him as an emblem of the “traditional culture” of China.[..] His specific association with the curriculum of the system of education of scholar-officials in the imperial government, and of traditional moral values more generally, connected him to the aspects of tradition worth preserving, or the things that held China back from modernization, depending on one’s point of view. So this is a complicated issue which still has no definite answer, but nevertheless keep in mind that comparative philosophy itself is a pretty new subfield of philosophy.


Nice question by the way, I love questions that try to bridge East and West.

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    Feb 19, 2023 at 18:15
  • So the emphasis was on developing the part that needed more work. Interesting.
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    Mar 2, 2023 at 11:53
  • Alas, there are no photographs of Jesus. Mar 13, 2023 at 5:29
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The response to the question "Is Confucianism a humanism?" is yes and no.

The points made below are backed by quotation from diverse documentation. Quotations concerning Confucianism as tagged by the label “C.”, quotations concerning Western Humanism as tagged by the label “W.H.”.

Confucianism is a humanism in the sense that:

  • it is secular, centered around human beings only and not supernatural powers,
  • it tackles the relationship of human beings with regard to society in a quite concrete way,

W.H.

Humanists asserted the dignity of normal earthly activities and even endorsed the pursuit of fame and the acquisition of wealth. The emphasis on a mature and healthy balance between mind and body, first implicit in Boccaccio, is evident in the work of Giannozzo Manetti, Francesco Filelfo, and Paracelsus; it is embodied eloquently in Montaigne’s final essay, “Of Experience.”

https://www.britannica.com/topic/humanism/Basic-principles-and-attitudes

  • it stresses the importance of reason (implying a certain amount of self control and deliberation in one’s actions) and knowledge:

C.

Confucius, like humanists today, did not see “the true way” as following religious codes, but as based on reason and humanity, stressing the importance of benevolence, respect for others, and looking pragmatically at individual situations rather than blindly following traditional rules.

https://humanists.uk/humanism/the-humanist-tradition/the-ancient-world/

W.H.

Taking up the traditional Aristotelian and scholastic division of functions of the soul into nutrition, sensation and cognition, Pico [della Mirandola] asserts that each person’s development will depend on the aspect they cultivate: those who cultivate the nutritive and reproductive part will become plants, those who cultivate the senses will be brutes, but if reason and understanding are pursued, they will be angels, sons of God

(Steenbakkers, 2014)

  • both humanism and Confucianism tend to be naturalists:

W.H.

Humanists are often assumed invariably to be, and certainly often self-identify as, naturalists. Indeed, humanism is regularly defined in such a way that signing up to naturalism is a requirement.

https://centerforinquiry.org/blog/humanism_and_naturalism/

C. and W.H.

Metaphysical Naturalism is most notably a Western phenomenon, although one tradition within Confucian philosophy (dating back at least to Wang Chong in the 1st Century, if not earlier) embraced a view that could be called Naturalism.

https://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_naturalism.html

Confucianism differs significantly from humanism in the sense that:

  • it is a collectivist philosophy while humanism is an individualist philosophy (e.g. "Sameness is the mother of disgust, variety the cure!" Petrarch; "You, with not limit or no bound, may choose for yourself!" Mirandola; "To him it is granted to have whatever he chooses, to be whatever he wills." Mirandola):

C.

Confucianism is basically a humanistic and collectivistic moral enterprise. Since the family sits as its core, it may aptly be deemed familial collectivism.

Ip, 2004, Confucian personhood and bioethics

W.H.

As a secular lifestance, secular humanism incorporates the Enlightenment principle of individualism, which celebrates emancipating the individual from traditional controls by family, church, and state, increasingly empowering each of us to set the terms of his or her own life.

https://secularhumanism.org/what-is-secular-humanism/

The preciousness and dignity of the individual person is a central humanist value. Individuals should be encouraged to realize their own creative talents and desires. We reject all religious, ideological, or moral codes that denigrate the individual, suppress freedom, dull intellect, dehumanize personality. We believe in maximum individual autonomy consonant with social responsibility.*

https://americanhumanist.org/what-is-humanism/manifesto2/

  • one of Confucianism’s main tenet is obedience to authority while humanism is significantly marked by a distrust toward authority:

C.

“Li”, the “proper way” or “propriety”, includes a set of rules for interaction with others and the role system. Control of emotions, restraint, obedience to authority, conforming and “face” are highly valued and important.

https://geriatrics.stanford.edu/ethnomed/chinese/fund/beliefs.html

  • the relationship with other cultures is not, to my knowledge, an issue in Confucianism, while it is a main one in humanism (see the Essays (1580) of Montaigne, where toleration for other cultures is an important theme**, and which contains the famous quote: "Everyone calls barbarism that which is not of his use." Chacun appelle barbarie ce qui n’est pas de son usage., or Erasmus quote "That you are patriotic will be praised by many and easily forgiven by everyone; but in my opinion it is wiser to treat men and things as though we held this world the common fatherland of all."):

W.H.

For all Renaissance thinkers, human excellence, superiority and dignity are a gift from God, a result of the plan of his creation. They conceived of dignity as a feature shared by all human beings, but for them this did not imply that all were entitled to inalienable human rights – rights that can be claimed merely by dint of being human. In fact, they saw dignity as an assignment; those who failed to realize it thereby proved that they were unworthy of the honorary name of man

(Steenbakkers, 2014)

The Humanist movement reconnected with the values, the philosophy, literature and art of classical Greco-Roman Antiquity, considered as the foundation of knowledge. But it also proposed new values, rooted in reason, free will, independence, tolerance and an openness of mind.

https://www.reflexions.uliege.be/cms/c_42848/en/humanism

The fundamental aspects of Erasmus's ethic humanism consisted of ideals of universal peace and tolerance.

(de Micheli, 2002)

  • as of ethics, humanism tends to be Epicurean, while Confucianism follows virtue ethics. Secular humanism is consequentialist [1].

C.

Virtue ethics, like Confucian ethics another form of virtue ethics, has as a fundamental assumption that humans are not born moral, but instead are socialized into morality.

Mendieta, E. (2008). Ethical Studies, Overview (Western). Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace, and Conflict, 739-746.

A common way to understand Confucian ethics is that it is a virtue ethic. For some scholars this will be an obvious, uncontroversial truth. For others, it is a misconstrual that imposes contentious Western assumptions on Confucianism about what it is to be a person and what an ethics should be about. In light of this controversy, it is important to specify the sense in which it is relatively uncontroversial to claim that virtues constitute a major focus of attention in these texts.

SEP - Chinese Ethics

W.H.

Humanists of today typically echo Epicurus, if not knowingly.

(Copson, 2015)

  • The concept of (human) dignity is, to my knowledge, absent from Confucianism, while it is quite central in humanism

*The individualist tone in this quote from the Manifesto II is very much low-keyed in the Manifesto III:

Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals.

https://americanhumanist.org/what-is-humanism/manifesto3/

**Humanism has not always been tolerant:

Greek humanism persisted among the successors of Plato and Aristotle, but, although it included lasting values, it was not an offering to all mankind. It was a cultural program designed predominantly for an elite of free men of aristocratic background and independent means who had the leisure for the pursuit of excellence. It was predicated on the idea of an inherent superiority of the Greek over the barbarian. (Zagorin, 2003)

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  • The toleration concepts needed to fix the chaos made by the true humanists, Truth only that humanism begets intentions of destroying all other cultures (by the equaling with the tolerance rules, invented ofc by the humanists) except "true"one-itself. Mar 13, 2023 at 7:04
  • All that passes as humanism is disguised greedy or disguised hate of duty. Mar 13, 2023 at 7:21
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You note many similar things, but:

Humanism is the -ism - an expansion doctrine, at that time Confucius principles is not -ism, it is aimed at self changes, not to convert an another to the "confucianism". Confucius principles are Chinese method, if you don't like them, they will not call you beast, barbarian, good or bad and ect unculture man, if you people are happy, or not happy - Chinese ll not care about you. But humanism as the faith of the traders need to expansion of their goods for new adepts - humanists. Untile you don't have societies of confucianists - they are not the same.

You must not to be confucianist to be a good or successful man, but if you disagree with humanists principles you ll be a butcher, or autofag, or something. Humanism is a new religion, religion of the modern society.

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