Manyul Im’s Chinese Philosophy Blog

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A Series of Footnotes to Confucius, Laozi–or to Me!

Picking up on something very interesting that Justin Tiwald said in the Tu string:

“I don’t think the defenders of Yili learning explicitly embraced the slogan ‘the classics comment on me’ (經注我). Still, there are a number of neo-Confucians who made statements in the neighborhood of this slogan. Lu Xiangshan is known for the shocking assertion that the ‘Six Classics are my footnotes’ (六經皆我註腳).”

We’ve all heard that Whitehead thought western philosophy has been just a long series of footnotes to Plato. It’s easy enough to imagine someone echoing Lu Xiangshan, saying, “Plato’s writings are just a series of footnotes to me.” (Who would that be? I could imagine Russell saying that over a cocktail.)

(Totally unrelated aside: Whitehead also said, and this is my favorite Whitehead quote, “A traveller who has lost his way should not ask ‘Where am I?’ What he really wants to know is, where are the other places?”)

It occurs to me that Lu Xiangshan’s assertion is really just a more strident way of describing “constructive” engagement with Confucianism, where Confucius and others are merely inspirational starting points for some new views, with Confucius providing some quotes and footnotes. Maybe the sort of projects that New Confucians are engaged in would fit this mold; maybe Van Norden’s suggestion for a neo-Mencian virtue ethics; maybe much of the comparative philosophy work that is out there where the author is using the past and trying to make it relevant to the present.

I have to ask, because in most respects, it is what I do for a living (aside from corrupting the youth), is there any independent point or value to investigating history–or more pointedly, Confucius, Laozi, et. al.–as an end in itself? I’m not exactly sure I understand the dictum to “revere the past,” or to “understand the past accurately,” as a worthwhile end in itself (unless, of course, it is on the order of stamp collecting). I used to be qualm-less about that as an endeavor, but I’m starting to have doubts (maybe I’ll have a blog-induced  career crisis). Any thoughts?

February 27, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Confucius, Daoism, History | 11 Comments