Wednesday, June 06, 2007

On Confucian Human Nature   posted by Razib @ 6/06/2007 01:17:00 PM

I was reading The Chinese Experience, a cultural history, when I was struck by something in the chapter on Confucianism:
...The belief that all men are born equal and are infinitely perfectible is a basic and profoundly humanistic Confucian doctrine, which is not paralleled in the main Christian tradition, which holds that all men are of equal value, rather than that they are born with similar characteristics. The belief goes back to the Analetcs, which includes the saying, 'By nature men are close to each other; through experience they become remote from each other'....

The generality of this is not surprising to me. If you read histories of the intellectual ferment in early 20th century China you note that it was the conservative and reactionary Mandarin class who argued most vociferously against the European ideas regarding the racial chain of being and eugenics. Instead, liberal progressives were open to Western science, which implied innate between group and within group differences, while the Confucians were immovable form their time tested tabula rasa dogma.

Of course, to some extent both groups were guilty of overreach, the Confucians rejected the new science which did point to heritable aspects of human nature and reality of individual differences (though to be fair, their moral-political system was the most robust our species has seen, persisting across 2,000 years). As for the racial science of the early 20th century, it was a coarse and clumsy beast which was vulnerable to the rise of the the tabula rasa methodologies in the human sciences, from behaviorism to Boasian cultural anthropology. But I do think it is important to note that in Geography of Thought Richard Nisbett reports that East Asians are still far more likely to attribute individual performance to context, circumstance and effort than innate aptitudes when compared to Westerners. My comment a few weeks ago on Confucianism in China was predicated in part on hints like this that the pre-Communist cultural sensibilities have persisted down to the present day. Many scholars argue that the ostensibly revolutionary Cultural Revolution was at the heart Confucian, placing emphasis on moral worth & will as opposed to technical efficiency & pragmatism. Sometimes you really have to look between the pages of the book to see that the title is deceptive.