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Philip Ivanhoe
Philip Ivanhoe
March 8, 2022

Confucianism and Cosmopolitanism with Philip Ivanhoe


U.S.-China Nexus Podcast


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How does Beijing lean on its Confucianism and traditional Chinese philosophy to frame its role in the world today?

Chinese leaders are “using Confucian views to frame and decorate their own expansionist view,” claims Philip Ivanhoe, professor and department chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Georgetown University. He further urges us to view traditional Chinese thinking and history not as a monolith but as pluralistic. Ivanhoe joins the U.S.-China Nexus to share how he started his career-long study of Chinese philosophy and why studying different cultures is important, especially when official ties are stalled.


Eleanor Albert: Today, our guest is Philip Ivanhoe, a professor and department chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Georgetown University. You are a historian of Chinese thought, particularly Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism, as well as the author of a number of books including Confucianism and Catholicism: Reinvigorating the Dialogue, out in 2020, Oneness: East Asian Conceptions of Virtue, Happiness, and How We Are All Connected, released in 2017. You've also edited and translated the writings of important Chinese thinkers, such as Zhu Xi: Selected Writings and Lu-Wang School of Neo-Confucianism. You serve as Distinguished Chair Professor in the College of Confucian Studies and Eastern Philosophy at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, South Korea. Philip, welcome to the show.

Philip Ivanhoe: Well, thank you for having me.

Eleanor Albert: So I was wondering if you could start off by telling us how and when did your interest in studying China and philosophy come about?

Philip Ivanhoe: It was in the early 1970s. I was in a program training to become a Marine Corps officer, a ground officer in long range recon. And at that time we were in a conflict, as you know, in Vietnam. I was at Stanford and I did a search of the Stanford database on Vietnam and out of more than a thousand books, I think I found maybe 10 or 12 that had to do with Vietnam's culture. And of course it was a very controversial time, it was not a popular time to be a member of the armed services. I came to believe that we were largely in this conflict out of ignorance of the history and culture of this place so I wanted to start to learn something about East Asian cultures.

At the time I was a math major, but I switched over to philosophy. You couldn't study Vietnamese at the time, but I could study Chinese. So I started studying Chinese, and I really liked it so I continued doing it, and then I eventually sought to live in East Asia. I got a grant to stay after I graduated and worked at a place called the Institute for Mathematical Studies for a couple years. And then instead of taking my commission in the Marine Corps, I joined the Army so that I could go to a language school and be stationed in East Asia. So I joined the US Army, I went to the Defense Language Institute and then spent the next three years in Korea. And then I came back actually to Stanford and did my Ph.D. in Chinese thought, and I've been committed since that time, very strongly, to the idea that we stumble often in the world out of ignorance and that view hasn't changed all that much.

Eleanor Albert: That's such a fascinating background. Jumping to the contemporary context, I know you study philosophy, which roots the history of a lot of China and the way it thinks about itself, but if you had to characterize or describe the kind of current state of US-China relations today in two or three words, what would they be?

Philip Ivanhoe: Something like hard to say. I think that too often, we talk about the conflict between cultures and values between China and the United States, and while I do think this theory of people like Huntington has some merit, I also think in some ways it's profoundly misguided. China is not a Confucian society. I'm not even sure you could say Korea is, although it's the most Confucian society in East Asia. Half of the Koreans, almost half, are Christians; almost half are Buddhist. In what sense is it Confucian? Well, of course Confucianism still plays a big role, but it doesn't play the dominant role in their political life or their military life or their economic life, and I think the same is true in China.

Since 1949, China is a communist country, and frankly, economically it was a profound failure until Deng Xiaoping started to make it a kind of authoritarian form of capitalism, then it saw remarkable growth, which I applaud. More people came out of poverty in China than exist in our country; that's a remarkable feat. And people say, "Well, give credit to the Chinese government." And I do, I applaud with one hand, because I think they should also be blamed for suppressing all these same people. The credit goes to the Chinese people.

So our present state, I would want to distinguish between the Chinese people and Chinese institutions, and the government, and I would also emphasize a little bit more a historical sense. Our relationship has gotten a lot worse under the current leader of China, it's primarily one man.

So number one, we exaggerate the clash of cultures. If Huntington's thesis was true, we ought to be having a lot more conflicts with Taiwan and South Korea and Japan, right? We don't. We do have conflicts with China. We do have conflicts with Venezuela. We do have conflicts with North Korea, and those are more autocratic, I wouldn't even call any of them Marxist anymore. We have conflicts with Russia. So I think people are exaggerating the role of culture, and not that it's not important, it's just, I don't think that's the source of conflict. The source of conflict is a leader who now wants to see China take a dominant place in the world, and that's leading to conflict.

Eleanor Albert: I'm curious to get your thoughts on this difference in whether there's clashes of political cultures versus societal culture, and where those overlap in the US-China dynamic?

Philip Ivanhoe: Politically we should have some conflict with China. First off I would say that as much as I'm proud of and love our country, we have some serious problems at home. We need to work on our incarceration rate, income disparity, treatment of minorities. On the other hand, I think liberal people, most of the people in universities, grossly exaggerate how bad things are. Things are changing, and I think improving. The role of women, there are more women now enrolled in colleges in the United States than there are men. There are more women in medical school, in law school. These are vast changes.

Yes, we have a lot of problems, but it's not doom and gloom as some people think. Whereas in China, I'd say in the last 10 or 15 years, it's pretty gloomy. I spent almost 13 years in Hong Kong during the first part of the twenty-first century, and it was really sad to watch this remarkable hybrid culture get in the coils of the Chinese government, and it's going in a very unhappy direction. The situation in Tibet and Xinjiang are outrageous. But if we live up to our ideals, and I hope and pray that we do, we're going to have political conflicts with them.

Do we have business conflicts? I think businesses want to do business. Again, businesses are in business to make money, and they're not in business for social justice. So people have to allow businesses to do what they do though we might think they need to be nudged in certain directions, and I'm all for nudging. So I think we're not in conflict really economically as much as people think; what we're really in conflict with is political.

And finally, I don't think we're in conflict socially much at all. I've lived in East Asian societies for much of my adult life. Again, I don't think culturally and value-wise we’re fundamentally opposed, but I do think we're politically opposed and that leads to economic and really, unfortunately, military kinds of conflicts, which are really quite worrisome.

Eleanor Albert: When I think about the use of kind of cultural references or philosophical traditions being invoked, they seem to be subsumed within this broader political context. What are things that either the US should do to better understand culturally, politically China? And vice versa, there are obviously things that could be done from the Chinese perspective, though I feel like they generally have invested significantly more in gaining exposure into the American system. Have any of these misunderstandings affected your work, and how to manage that?

Philip Ivanhoe: There are roughly as many Chinese people studying English today as there are Americans. I know you speak Chinese, but we don't do a very good job of learning other languages. And that goes for European languages even, which are closer to dialects compared to say Chinese or Japanese or Korean. So one thing we need to do is really just have a much deeper appreciation, a thick understanding of the traditions that motivate people in their everyday lives. And I think still, despite a lot of lip service, universities do a fairly poor job of that. They don't teach classes where students can get sustained work in understanding other cultures.

I think it ought to be a national security priority to understand in a thick and sympathetic way other people. It's a high calling to actually learn enough to understand other people. And we fall down on that to our own detriment.

Eleanor Albert: So I want to just ask you a couple more questions on this kind of bilateral US/China perspective, and we've seen kind of an integration or reemergence or repurposing of Confucian concepts and principles in some of the way that Beijing's external narrative is about its role in the world, and a rough outline of its vision of international order. What do you see as the most significant stumbling blocks in our understanding of this Confucian reemergence? What can we gain from a deeper understanding of contemporary Chinese political thought as inspired or repurposing part of its tradition?

Philip Ivanhoe: The United States and other Western countries, either explicitly or implicitly, rely on their own cultural perspective and religious perspective, at times to drive some of their policies. And that always will lead you into conflict with people who have different religious or cultural traditions. So I think there's a common problem that is almost unavoidable. In philosophy a lot of people worry about anthropocentrism toward nature, but in one sense we can't avoid being anthropocentric because we see things from the perspective of human beings. So we have to work hard to try to understand at least the other interests. So again, we need to do more sympathetic and deep understanding of other cultures, and that again should be a priority.

Where do problems emerge in all of this? Well, a general reluctance to do this on the part of a lot of people. Now why is it particularly challenging today with China in a way it's not challenging with say Taiwan or South Korea, or I would say even Vietnam, oddly enough, given that we fought a war there not too long ago, is that the Chinese government is self-consciously skimming from the Confucian tradition and taking up ideas that fit their own ideology. They're not even pretending very well to be driven by and compelled by or inspired by Confucian views; they're using Confucian views to frame and decorate their own expansionist view. I mean, there's nothing in Confucius's view that would justify the attempts to gain hegemony over the South China Sea.

So one of the things I'd like to see happen and that we can do, is to first off understand that Confucianism is far from a monolithic tradition. Even within China, from the very beginning, Xunzi and Mencius argue about whether human nature is basically good or bad, and that has profound repercussions. Most people are wholly ignorant of Han Feizi, the so-called legalist tradition. This tradition was the foundation of the first unified government in China. That's where in fact we get the word China, it's from the Qin Dynasty.

So if we don't start studying those things and say, "Well actually, how much of what's going on or what has gone on in China is really more legalist than Confucian?" And we don't realize that the Confucian tradition offers vastly different answers, and we also don't look at the history of China, we will fail to understand the past, the present, and the future possibilities. If you look at the Tang dynasty, it was a really remarkably multicultural time. Many top leaders were from outlying regions; they were not all Han Chinese. And then what happened in the course of history since say post-Tang? Well, in the Song Dynasty, China was occupied for most of that period, several hundred years, by what they would consider barbarian people. And then what happened after it got reunified was, well, then the Yuan came in. Again, the myth is they were absorbed by China, but the reality is China was part of the Mongol empire. Then what happened? Well the Ming came back, and then what happened? The Qing took over, so the Manchus, another “barbarian” people.

So for more than half of the last thousand years, China has been ruled by foreign people. We should press that diversity and that fluidity and recognize it in ourselves as well. Let's stop essentializing the United States. I think we ought to be a little bit more aware of our own history and that we ought to press China to be a little bit more aware of their own.

And I think if we all do that, we'll all start to be a little bit more sensible and stop this moral grandstanding – doesn't help you interpersonally, so it doesn't help you nationally. We ought to realize that we're all under some kinds of misunderstandings and that we’re susceptible to certain human weaknesses and get in a serious dialogue about what's in the best interests of our peoples and the people of Earth, and I think if we do that, we have at least hope.

Eleanor Albert: If you don't have the interpersonal, there's very little to go on other than kind of assumptions and biases that have been ingrained over time. I think this connects really well to turning to cosmopolitanism. So you're a co-convener of a research group with the initiative and the topic is cosmopolitanism. I was wondering if you could share the impetus behind this effort and some of the themes explored in its agenda and how it can link to this conversation we've been having about misperceptions or misunderstandings or even ignorance?

Philip Ivanhoe: I've been interested in this topic for, I don't know, 20 something years and when a very famous essay was written by a woman named Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher, on cosmopolitanism and really about pride in one's country and patriotism ... And then it was responded to by a bunch of scholars in an edited volume that took her essay as central, and frankly, almost everybody was fairly critical of it for various reasons. And the reason being that her notion of cosmopolitanism, going back to this Greek thinker, Diogenes, is that to be a citizen of the world she cashes out in very Kantian terms. If I'm going to be cosmopolitan with you, I regard you as a person, a moral agent, an autonomous moral agent.

And a number of people have criticized this on a number of grounds. And I joined in that. I wrote an article kind of sketching what I thought might be alternative views drawing inspiration from Confucianism. But my core objection is here again, we're claiming that we want to be multicultural in a critical way, and what we're doing is just imposing an extremely narrow view. Frankly, it's not a view that most Americans share. If you were to ask the average person, "Well, who are you?" I mean, if you ask me, "Who am I?" I'd say, "I'm a white guy of Eastern European ancestry whose grandparents came to this country. I came from a blue collar family, and I served in the military. I was Catholic when I was brought." If somebody said, "Oh, but do you know you're really just an autonomous moral agent?" I said, "What are you even talking about, that's not who I am. And if that's the only way you regard me, frankly, I find it a little insulting that you think everything that's important to me is irrelevant."

While it's a powerful view and I understand where she's coming from, and I have tremendous respect for Martha Nussbaum, I wanted to say, "Well, what else can we do?" The cosmopolitan group that we've assembled with my colleague and friend Peng Guoxiang from Zhejiang University is to say, "Well, what kinds of questions and what kinds of alternative schemes can we propose drawing upon the Chinese tradition?" And a couple of the ideas that I personally have had is that, well, one way of looking at it is to think about Confucius and how he would ask questions of people whenever he went anywhere. And some people would criticize him for saying, "Oh, I thought he knew everything, and he doesn't know..." But he was asking simply to show his interest in them.

And so I thought, "Well, maybe there's a picture of what it is to be a kind of ideal guest.” And to be honest with you I was inspired by movies that I saw about the time in the world, in the '30s, when people would say, "Well, the world is Shanghai, Tokyo, San Francisco, Paris, London." And people would go there and they would know, going back to something we had mentioned earlier, they'd speak the language a little bit. They would have friends there. They would know about the culture. And that's starting to get that thick description, that person to person. And frankly, I think that's what it is to respect another person.

And so that's one view, another view might be to look at, what would it be just to recognize that we are all human beings. We all have a same basic nature. So one way is to say, “Well, look, how much difference is there between you and me from a biological point of view?” We get hungry, we get cold, we get tired, we have anxieties, we’re human. And we ought to be focusing on that more. And we ought to really start to say, “Well, in a certain sense, we are brothers and sisters.”

So that's another one, the kind of great family. So anyway, those are just two examples. There's a movement in China to invoke this notion from Chinese philosophy about tianxia, the world. So they’re saying, “Oh, well, we have a picture of cosmopolitanism where everybody under the world is our concern and the Chinese government is working to bring peace and harmony to tianxia.” And what does that mean if there’s no sense of something like rights or some kind of fundamental, basic respect for other cultures and groups and individuals? It’s a license for global hegemony.

So we’re trying to draw leverage point for critique of both East and West conceptions and to try to start to develop alternative views of what it is to be a cosmopolitan. And I think all of them are going to end up with defending some kind of strong view, not of cultural relativism, but of what I would call cultural and individual pluralism. That there are just simply many ways of living life that all can be seen as good.

And I think that that's how I feel about my time in East Asia. There are certain things about Chinese culture and Korean culture that I admire profoundly that I find we could learn from, but not all of them are things I would want to incorporate wholly. I think we could be a little bit more filial to our parents, although I grew up in a subculture of America where filiality was very strong. But I think that can also get carried to an extreme that I don't endorse. So again, what we need to do is to recognize the plurality of good life and to see this as a positive thing.

Multiculturalism is often invoked in universities as a good, and I think that it’s very uncritically done. When I say multiculturalism, it has to pass this kind of pluralism test about, is it really consistent with what the best science tells us about human beings? If we use that as a kind of barrier to say you’ve got to get over that, there’s still a lot of different ways to live, as you know. And we ought to see that as a good because it makes us aware that ours is not the only way, and that there might be things in these other cultures that we would want to adopt.

I find the difference of opinion, educative, humbling, and making me more critically aware of what it is to be a human being is still an open-ended project. So we’re looking for forms of cosmopolitanism that endorse that kind of view and would justify it from a philosophical point of view. We’re not going to end up with a mega theory, we’re going to end up with something that is more on the ground, and it would call for a certain kind of multicultural education, as a standing obligation.

Eleanor Albert: I think that's a very noble and valiant effort and is super important when we have tense political contexts, right? And there's only knowledge to be gained from engaging with different cultures and conversations. ... One of the things I find interesting about this idea of cosmopolitanism from a philosophical perspective is that our world is so different today, not just because of COVID-19 and limited ability to be safely indoors with lots of people where these conversations can happen, but just our existence as human beings is no longer purely geographically based. And so I wonder if the digital world is becoming part of the conversation as it relates to cosmopolitanism, especially bridging barriers between East and West? Is that factoring into your thinking?

Philip Ivanhoe: Very much so. When I was at Stanford the internet was really just being forged and I had the honor to be around some of the people who are doing it. And one of the things that I always tell people about that period is it was almost inebriating to be around these folks because all of them held a vision that said the internet, the connectiveness is going to be the great equalizer. As long as somebody was able to connect to the internet, they could be in a rural village in a very poor country and have access to things that were empowering.

And that was kind of the vision, and we're going to share with one another, as you say, we're going to learn about one another. And I just found it so inspiring and so hopeful. There was a real sense that we were going to bring the planet together, learn from each other, and things would be better.

Nobody foresaw how it could be misused. And for instance, in our country, the echo chamber created by these so-called talk show hosts and commentators… Or what's happening in places like China, the mass surveillance tied to the social credit system... When people find out about it, they should realize that the efficiencies provided by technology are really just hermetically sealing off a billion plus people's minds. And so I think there are extremely big challenges from social media and the internet.

The other thing is that I think with COVID-19 the isolation that it grew, the ability to sit at home and anonymously either critique or criticize other people, I think is unhealthy. I have to say among younger people, again, not universally, but I think they're less able to sit down face to face and chat than when I was growing up because their world is just wildly different, in some ways I think they have so much more power. So use that and use it to learn and to bring us together. And be very wary about how it and you might be using it and it might be using you.

Eleanor Albert: Well, on a more positive note, I will say I look forward to the insights that your cosmopolitan group can share with us, and maybe it can provide some good foundation or framework for greater engagement and hopefully redirecting the general direction of U.S.-China exchanges. You were cogently saying, people-to-people ties can really be an anchor for understanding in a way where levels of exchange that have economic or political incentives aren't necessarily able to get out of themselves as much.

Philip Ivanhoe: On that note, Georgetown's a Catholic and Jesuit institution, and if you look back at the history of the Jesuits, of course, there are things you might question. But one thing that people should celebrate is this long tradition of Jesuits really getting that kind of thick description, and particularly Matteo Ricci, in terms of China, should be a hero to everyone. And should teach us that even in this time when political, government-to-government things are extremely difficult, if we were to hold an event about Matteo Ricci or hold an event about Chinese culture, we could invite the Chinese ambassador or somebody at a consulate or somebody like this, and they would be happy to come and hear how we're interested in and how we're trying to learn about Chinese culture. And they would leave with maybe a little bit more inclination to try to cooperate and recognize that we want to learn as much as teach.

So I think culture is also, aside from person-to-person, universities should realize that when the official governmental, political action is stalled, we can still study each other's culture, and the natural mutual admiration that generates, I think will help us all.