A Fulbrighter in China: Constructing a Platform for a Cultural Dialogue between Confucianism and American Pragmatism

The Fulbright Mission Statement is rather clear: to promote better relations between the United States and other countries in the world. And probably the most important international relationship in the first decades of the 21st century is that between the remaining superpower with the most developed economy, America, and most populace country with the fastest growing economy, China. But because of a persisting lack of cultural understanding, this increasingly complex liaison, although driven by obvious mutual benefit, remains not only fragile and unstable but also significantly underdeveloped.

There is a set of complementary and interpenetrating conditions that has set the stage for a conversation between a newly revised Deweyan pragmatism and a Confucianism that is returning to prominence with a growing Chinese self-esteem and pride in its traditions.

Over the past years, I have been revisiting the traditions of American philosophy from Jonathan Edwards through Ralph Waldo Emerson and on to William James and John Dewey. I have been inspired to do so by productive resonances I have found between traditional Confucian sensibilities and indigenous American philosophy. These resonances provide us with a language that we can appeal to in introducing Confucian philosophy to the Western academy, and also, in the spirit of Kipling’s mantra: “What knows he of England whom only England knows,” with an external perspective from which to examine the presuppositions of our own worldview and commonsense. Given the often delicate and sometimes underproductive history of the relationship between America and China broadly, I suggest that American pragmatism might serve as a vocabulary to promote a positive dialogue between these cultures at a moment in history when such a conversation is imperative.

        For example, there is a ready comparison to be made between the central Confucian notion of relationally constituted persons (ren)— we might say, human “becomings”—with Dewey’s idea of “individuality.” We might also explore Confucian role ethics and the centrality of moral imagination in conversation with Deweyan ethics, and see to what extent these two traditions share the idea of a human-centered religiousness.

-Roger T. Ames – Fulbright to China 2006

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