Issue 23_Spring 1999_Philosophy now (a magazine of ideas)_Interview with Tu Wei-ming

Philosophy Around the World
Issue 23: Spring 1999

Interview with Tu Wei-ming

Harvard philosopher Tu Wei-ming is the most famous advocate of the Confucian tradition outside China. Anja Steinbauer talked to him in Boston.

Professor Tu, could you give our readers an idea of where your philosophical interests lie?

When I first came to the States to study philosophy in 1962, to my great surprise, at the Department of Philosophy at Harvard, the three areas I considered particularly close to my heart were not recognised as important areas of philosophical enquiry, namely aesthetics, ethics and philosophy of religion. Ever since then I’ve worked in quite a number of areas, like religion, comparative religion, psychology of religion, sociology of religion, or comparative Asian philosophy and especially the development of Confucian philosophy as a living tradition rather than just as a historical phenomenon. All these efforts are very much centred around the three arenas of aesthetics, ethics and philosophy of religion. As you know, following Kierkegaard’s tripartite division, aesthetics, with emphasis on the body, on sensuality, on pleasure, is very different, or fundamentally different, from ethics, governed by rules and regulations of behaviour. A leap of faith is required to move into the area of religion, whereas in the Confucian tradition, in Chinese tradition in general, the three arenas are integrated, interrelated. So you can even characterise the Confucian approach to philosophy as the process of transforming our biological realities, our body, our sensory perceptions, our impulses and so forth, into aesthetic expressions of the self. And that process of transformation requires some foundation. That’s the reason why the Confucian tradition has been characterised as self-cultivation. Philosophy as a way of life or a spiritual exercise, as Plato talked about it, I think is very central to Chinese philosophical thinking, especially Confucian thinking. Upon reflection I came to realise that the reason why these three arenas were not studied very well, or not even considered important by some of the philosophers in the Sixties, was a bias of the philosophical enterprise since the Second World War. There was a sense that philosophy as a mode of enquiry, of analytical enquiry, does not presuppose the experiential understanding of the philosopher. You have the Lockean notion of an original state in which every human being is exactly the same. Therefore you cannot say you have to have some kind of experience as a precondition. But for ethics, for aesthetics, for religion, that kind of experience is critical, so maybe that’s one of the reasons why they are marginalised.

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