In this audio clip, The Philosopher’s Zone podcast interviews professor in philosophy Roger Ames on his thoughts on Confucian role ethics. Ames discusses the Western idea of individualism versus the Chinese relationally-constituted self, and what it means to be a person today.
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Authenticity can mean many different things. According to Ballentine (2011), authentic is that which is genuine or real. An item from the store can be considered authentic if that item is made from the material the seller claims it is. So, a real watch or a genuine purse contrasts with a watch or purse made from less valuable material. While the less-valuable watch would still be a ‘watch’ that measures time, the fact that it is made from material other than what the seller claims it was made from makes the watch cheap, worthless, and in-authentic.
Rodriguez (2015) extends the definition of authenticity to people when he claims that authenticity means trustworthy and reliable. In other words, a person is considered authentic if they are what they claim to be. If person A states that she is honest and tells the truth to her friend, it follows that person A is an authentic person. She has proven to be reliable by doing what she said she would do, i.e: tell the truth. While person A would still be a physical person whether or not she told the truth, following through with being honest is what gives her the attribute of authenticity. Thus, authenticity is a social value that does not exist in the natural world: “what is taken as authentic is a social construction rather than an objective fact” (Carroll, 2009, p. 4).
Understanding authentic personhood (what it means to be a ‘real’ person) goes beyond being honest when one claims to be honest, and raises questions about how to live in the world and what it means to genuinely experience life. In Western philosophy, this question has been extensively explored where ‘being in the world’ means to think (Descartes), to be conscious (Kant), or to imagine (Hume). For Descartes, for example, to be an authentic being with an identity means to doubt and inquire. “I know that I exist and that nothing else belongs to my nature or essence except that I am a thinking thing” (Meditations VI, p. 29). In Confucianism however, the idea of individuality or self is not adequately explored. As Chen (2015) states, the idea that Confucian ethics is antipathy to individuality is a mistake as there are plenty of references to the self in both The Great Learning and The Analects. While emphasised by most Confucian texts, the value of authenticity is also often ignored and dismissed by scholars in the West. To address this gap, this article discusses both authenticity and the self in Confucian philosophy.
While there is no direct reference to what the self is in Confucian teachings, the doctrine highlights that humans are different from other beings. The Analects states, “an authentic person is not a vessel” (2.12). Personhood consists in zhixiang or having a sense of meaning in life. This means that experiencing the self and the world is about committing to some purpose: “the way of humanity consists in learning broadly, acting firmly on one’s zhixiang, inquiring seriously, and reflecting critically” (The Analects, 9.6). To have purpose and to act on that purpose is therefore what distinguishes humans from other beings. Since Confucianism is concerned with establishing harmony with others, the idea of purpose or zhixiang usually refers to ethical aspirations and concern for the common good (Chen, 2004). This relates to Heidegger’s (1962) definition of authenticity. According to Heidegger, to be oneself in the world (what he calls Dasdein or ‘being-there’) is to be in relation. Relation here refers to what one is at any moment and what one can be as life unfolds in endless possibilities. Over the course of one’s life, identity and being are always in question: “we are always projections into the future, incessantly taking a stand on who we are” (Varga, 2014). Being authentic or representing one’s self truly comes down to ownership or ‘being one’s own’, implying that to exist fully in the world means to own up to what one is and what one does. Zhixiang in Confucianism says the same thing. With a purpose, a person is able to own up to their existence by having a firm vision of how their existence should be. Without it, people “are like ships without helms…wandering around and losing in direction” (Wang, 1986, p. 26). Consistent thoughts, actions, beliefs, and choices in accordance with zhixiang allows one to focus on existence and become an authentic being.
In addition to purpose, creativity also develops the individual. Whereas zhixiang provides the self with a vision and meaning, creativity is what drives or energizes the self. In The Great Learning, it is written that “If you can renovate yourself one day, then you can do so every day, and keep doing so day after day” (Tu, 1978, p. 37). Renovating, constructing, and producing are all ways of accessing the authentic self. Creativity, in this sense, is related to ownership and originality. To be creative is to truly exist on one’s own terms as creatively gives the self energy to construct and pursue zhixiang. The Doctrine of the Mean states, “only those with the greatest sincerity under heaven can fulfil their nature” (ch. 22). Making use of one’s potentials enables the self to strive for an ethical life in which ritual, kindness, and justice can be established wherever one is.
The third attribute that makes up personhood and authentic existence is critical thinking. Like the Socratic dictum, the unexamined life is not worth living, Confucianism emphasises self-examination as a way of establishing truth, value, and meaning to existence. For instance, in The Analects Master Zeng is recorded to have said, “each day I examine myself upon three points. In planning for others, have I been loyal? In company with friends, have I been trustworthy? And have I practiced what has been passed on to me?” (1.4). Critical thinking means reflecting upon one’s action and inquiring about what one is learning in addition to reflecting and inquiring about other people’s actions and learning. As Chen (2004) notes, “without thinking things over, we cannot understand the truth of Being and be free of self-deception” (p. 19). Critical inquiry provides the setting or means to which one can be creative and pursue a sense of purpose. With it, authentic life can be experienced to a greater degree.
Finally, the most important aspect to living an authentic life is sincerity. Sincerity resembles loyalty and trustworthiness in that it means to ‘be true to oneself’. To be sincere is to not veer from the position one holds or strive to appear otherwise than one ought to (Varga, 2014). It is, as Trilling (1972) states, “the sense of being sound, or pure, or whole; or consistent in its virtuousness” (p. 12-13). In Islam, sincerity is one of the most important aspects of religious duty. For instance, Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq notes that “sincerity of action lies in this that you should not desire anyone to praise you for it except God Almighty, and intention supersedes action. Lo, verily, intention is action itself.” Al-Sadiq’s statement highlights that sincerity involves having the right intentions as whether or not one carries out a religious duty correctly, the merit of that action will be based on the truthful feelings, beliefs, and thoughts of the believer. Or as the Qur’an (17:84) states, “in accordance with his character (shakilatihi)”, which refers to the believer’s way or manner. One of the oldest elaborations of sincerity is found in chapter 20 of The Doctrine of the Mean: “To be sincere is the way of heaven. To become sincere is the way of mankind. If you are sincere you will reach the center without force”. Thus, developing sincerity is the way to establishing personhood. Since sincerity is an essential component to practicing the moral way, being sincere relates to sincerity to self and others. Only by cultivating ‘right’ emotions can a person genuinely be benevolent, righteous, and wise. Without it, ritual would be empty, kindness would be false, and practice would have no meaning. Insincerity would not only involve deceiving and diminishing others, but putting on a mask and becoming disconnected from the world.
Although individualism does not exist in Confucian thought – all individuals are relational beings that exist through and are defined by other people – it is incorrect to state that “we ought to make it a point to avoid speaking of ‘the self’ in Confucius” (Fingarette, 1991, p. 199, cited in Ames, 2011, p. 125). There is no denying that the self exists. Being an ethical person is predicated on the assumption that a subjective, metaphysical self is required to carry out one’s ethical duties and develop harmonious relationships with others. Building authentic personhood by finding purpose, being creative, inquiring critically, and carrying out sincerely is what gives one the means of relating to and being with others. It is what gives one humanity.