The Exterior of Philosophy: On the Practice of New Confucianism

Liang Shuming and Mao Zedong

New Confucian scholar Liang Shuming 梁漱溟 (1893-1988; left) pays a visit to Mao Zedong 毛澤東 (1893-1976; right) in Yan’an in January 1938. Although the two had met for the first time in 1918 at a mutual friend’s house in Beijing, they did not exchange their views on China until the 1938 meetings. The two met again in Yan’an in 1946, and repeatedly in Beijing after 1950, during which year Liang had moved to the capital at the invitation of Mao and Zhou Enlai 周恩来 (1898-1976). Liang personally reported to Mao his assessment of the land reforms from 1950 until a public falling-out took place between the two in September 1953.* Photo:

Project Leader: Prof. Dr. Ralph Weber
Team:Dr. Philippe Major, Yvonne Yim Fong Chan, Milan Matthiesen, Tabea Klaiber

This research project looks at 20th century New Confucian philosophy as a practical reaction to a series of local and global challenges. To this end, the philosophical products under study will be situated sociologically in the Chinese, Hong Kong, or Taiwanese locals from where they emerged, but simultaneously also in the global arenas where the engagement and opposition with European history as well as European knowledge products and more specifically European philosophy stood at the forefront. One of the goals of the research project, therefore, is to show the ways in which New Confucianism posits itself in opposition to the perceived hegemony of European global knowledge production (e.g. Marxism, Liberalism, Scientism) as it took shape in East Asia, even when such knowledge products were redefined and reassessed through the process of (cultural and linguistic) translation throughout the 20th century. By looking at New Confucian philosophy’s struggle with local and global challenges (which are mutually constitutive rather than denoting separate challenges), a better picture will emerge not only of the New Confucian movement itself but also of the power relations at work in the practice of doing philosophy both within hegemonic centers and at their peripheries, thereby highlighting factors that are often conventionally located at the exterior of philosophy.

Project Aims

Xiong Shili

New Confucian philosopher Xiong Shili 熊十力 (1885-1968; center front) meets with his students in Shanghai on his way to Hankou in September 1946. Included in the picture, which was taken at one of his students’ house, are famed New Confucians Mou Zongsan 牟宗三 (1909-1995; first from the left) and Xu Fuguan 徐復觀 (1904?-1982; third from the right).* Photo:

Ma Yifu

New Confucian intellectual Ma Yifu 馬一浮 (1883-1967; center front) is visited by Zhejiang Province Governor Sha Wenhan 沙文漢 (1908-1964; first from the left), Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai (second from the left), friend Jiang Guobang 蔣國榜 (1893-1970; third from the left), and Soviet Union Head of State Kliment Voroshilov (1881-1969; second from the right). This picture was taken in May 1957 at the Jiang villa (蔣莊) on the famous West lake in Hangzhou, where Ma lived, at the invitation of Jiang Guobang, from 1950 until the Red Guards evicted him from the villa in August 1966.* Photo:

The research project studies 20th century New Confucian philosophy by deploying a sociological perspective for philosophical aims. New Confucianism is a prominent and contested subject in contemporary East Asian academic and political debates, with advocates, critics and scholars arguing about its relevance. Since the beginning of this century, New Confucianism has received much attention in European-language scholarship as well, and has been particularly understood as a philosophy. The existing scholarship, however, has often chosen an approach that is either historical, as in the genre of intellectual history, or philosophical, tuned towards showing the contemporary philosophical relevance of New Confucianism. The current project builds on recent studies that add to these established approaches by offering sociological perspectives on New Confucianism. The ambition of the project is to pursue this perspective, but examine its potential for markedly philosophical readings of New Confucianism.

The project hence breaks new ground in terms of its disciplinary approach beyond the specific context of New Confucianism. Drawing on work done in Sociology, the research project explores the possibilities of a Sociology of Philosophy approached as a philosophical sub-discipline.  The research group constitutes one of the largest specialized teams on the topic of New Confucianism outside of China. The project breaks down into three focused studies on the exterior of philosophy – that is, the sociological foundation upon which philosophy is conducted – and its relevance for the practice of New Confucianism. The sociological starting points vary among the three studies, as does the place of action (mainland China as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan). The emphasis in the first project is on the practice of writing New Confucian philosophy as a means to create parallel societies of authors and readers, whereby the historical society stands for both a condition that is constitutive and a limitation that is to be transcended. The second project proceeds from the circumstance of censorship in the People's Republic of China under Mao Zedong and applies a Straussian reading to the texts produced by those New Confucians who remained on the mainland.

The third project takes as its starting point the anti-Confucian criticism of Liberals in 1950s Taiwan and looks at how the critics use social and political agendas that are not straightforwardly philosophical when trying to debunk New Confucianism and advance philosophical arguments.  The research project promises a threefold scientific impact in terms of establishing a philosophical Sociology of Philosophy, of adding further scholarship to the thriving field of non-European philosophy and by introducing a new integrative approach to the study of New Confucianism.

* Despite intensive research, we were not able to retrieve all copyright holders for the images. We kindly ask any right holders or legal successors to contact us directly


This project looks at the discourse of self-mastery in texts written after 1949 by Mou Zongsan and Tang Junyi. Sociology of philosophy will be understood, in this project, as a methodology centered on what Bourdieu calls “dual reading.” That is, this research will read philosophical texts as attempts to build alternative and symbolic societies as imagined within the texts, but also as enacted in the relation between author, text, and reader. These alternative societies, it will be claimed, are proposed in opposition to the actual society within which the texts were written and originally read: they are typically harmonious instead of fragmented, enlightened instead of mundane, unburdened by political authority and power, etc. And yet, the symbolic societies created within the texts often create new hierarchies, between author and reader, which aim at elevating the status of the New Confucian philosopher to a higher existential realm – wherein the ideal of sagehood and kingliness can be symbolically “embodied” by the text – while in the actual social milieu New Confucians tended to be rather marginalized from the centers of power. New Confucian textuality will emerge, within this reading, as a medium through which authors and readers can symbolically purify themselves from the negative influences of the historical society within which they lived before inserting themselves within an alternative and imagined society: that of Confucian sages no longer restricted and confined by the social and the historical. However, it will be asserted that this philosophical attempt to liberate the self from its socio-historical setting should be understood as a social act; one that claims to transcend the socio-historical but that is ultimately situated in it and greatly defined by it.

The exterior of philosophy in the second project is very straightforward. It concerns the social conditions of philosophical production. The focus is here set on the specific period after the CCP had taken control of the Chinese mainland in 1949 and until the end of the Mao era. Whereas there has been very productive research on those New Confucian philosophers exiled in Hong Kong and Taiwan, there is almost nothing about those who stayed on the mainland and were so-to-say potentially exiled at home. In this project, the writings and the activities of prominent first generation New Confucians under CCP rule will be examined (e.g. Xiong Shili, Feng Youlan, He Lin, Liang Shuming, Ma Yifu) and some key texts will be analyzed by way of a Straussian esoteric reading (understood as an interpretational strategy without taking on board much of Straussianism more broadly conceived), which is particularly configured for the interpretation of texts written under conditions of censorship and searches for the meaning of the text between the lines as much as on the lines. This research will relate to the postdoctoral project to the extent that writing philosophical texts under harsh political conditions works by creating parallel realities. However, these parallel realities are also always confined and ultimately enabled by the historical society within which they are embedded, notably in this case among the conflicting impulses of censorship, political controls and wide-ranging campaigns, on the one side, and upright intellectual conversion and newly discovered Marxist commitment, on the other side.

The exterior of philosophy in the third project is devoted to Anti-Confucian criticism. The idea here is to extend the inquiry beyond the philosophical arguments of New Confucian texts by approaching them through the lens of the opposition that they caused in the broader intellectual and political context. The focus of this project will be on the criticism of Yin Haiguang, as well as Zhang Foquan and Lei Zhen, in the debate between Liberals and Confucians in the Taiwan of the 1950s, and will focus particularly on how participants of this debate use social and political agendas, motifs, and aims that are not straightforwardly philosophical when trying to debunk New Confucianism and advance a philosophical argument, and on how the New Confucian response to the Liberal critique similarly made use of non-philosophical, mostly political tools. One of the central arguments of this project will be that, at the time, the philosophical field was saturated with political concerns, as very few intellectuals remained impartial vis-à-vis the political division between the CCP, the GMD, and the possibility of a third path (represented by liberalism or cultural conservatism) which would avoid the pitfalls of the first two. Both camps, it will be argued, attempt to build alternative and symbolic liberal societies in opposition to both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

The goal of this short monograph is to give an overview of New Confucianism that is historically informed and illustrative of a sociology of philosophy approach, while being accessible to the general reader. Different from existing scholarship which retraces the “movement” from an internal viewpoint, this project will pursue additional external and global perspectives.

This is a monograph that presents the results of research undertaken in the last fifteen to twenty years. The volume will combine a comprehensive exposition of Tu Weiming’s social and political thought with specialized studies deploying a markedly sociological reading of his Confucian philosophy.


«The Political and Social Thought of Mou Zongsan (1909-1995)»
Peng Guoxiang is a Qiushi Distinguished Professor of Philosophy in the School of Humanities of Zhejiang University. His talk will be followed by a workshop.

«Confucius and Correct Naming: the Emergence of a Modern Hype»
Carine Defoort is a Professor in the Department of Sinology of KU Leuven. Her talk will be followed by a workshop.

«The Society of New Confucianism: Hermeneutical Strategies of Contextualization and Evasion in the work of Mou Zongsan»
Ady Van den Stock is a postdoc fellow at the Department of Languages and Cultures of Ghent University. His talk will be followed by a workshop.

«Why is Kang Youwei Relevant to the Study of Chinese Philosophy?»
Lee Ting-mien is Assistant Professor in the Philosophy and Religious Studies Programme of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of Macau. Her talk will be followed by a workshop.

«From Metaphysics to Dialectical Materialism: Feng Youlan and Chinese Communism»
Diana Xiaoqing Lin is Professor of History at Indiana University Northwest. Her talk will be followed by a workshop. 

Paper to present:
Ralph Weber, “A Sociological Reading of Tu Weiming’s Philosophy”

«Kang Youwei (1858-1927): A Chinese Witness of the Young Turk Revolution»
Giray Fidan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Translation and Cultural Studies at Gazi University, Ankara. His talk will be followed by a workshop.

«Kang Youwei’s Travelogues as a Sociological Source for Understanding his Philosophy»
Giray Fidan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Translation and Cultural Studies at Gazi University, Ankara.

Paper to present:
Ralph Weber, “A Sociological Reading of Tu Weiming’s Philosophy”

«Confucian Democracy Beyond the Pluralism Dilemma»
Kim Sungmoon is Professor of Political Theory and Director of the Center for East Asian and Comparative Philosophy at Chinese University of Hong Kong

Conference Website

Papers to be presented:
Ralph Weber, “Huang Zongxi’s Critique of Fellow Confucians as Failed Advisors”
Abstract: The first chapter of the famous Mingyi daifang lu 明夷待訪錄 by Huang Zongxi 黃宗羲 (1610–1695) is often read as a Confucian critique of the selfish autocratic ruler. In my paper, I will first seek to establish a different reading of the first chapter, using the reflexive hermeneutical approach developed by Paul Ricoeur and arguing that Huang is at least as much after criticizing his fellow Confucians, whom he considers to be “petty Confucians” and quintessentially failed advisors. I will then engage in additional interpretative methods (looking, among else, at Huang’s biography, his oeuvre, the qualified intentions of the text according to Skinner’s Cambridge approach) in order to corroborate, specify or refute my initial reading. 

Philippe Major, “Philosophical Textuality between Heaven and Earth: Reading Tang Junyi”
Abstract: Thus far, New Confucian texts have generally been approached from philosophical or historical perspectives. While philosophical approaches tend to view texts as a medium through which the author more or less disinterestedly presents his or her ideas, historical approaches usually regard texts as sources from which one can get a better grasp of the historical author or epoch. In both cases, textuality is regarded as a medium through which access to something of greater importance – philosophical ideas or historical realities – can be granted.
In this talk, I wish to problematize our conception of philosophical texts, at least as it pertains to New Confucianism, by taking a closer look at the way philosophical textuality is depicted and employed by Tang Junyi (唐君毅) in his work Cultural Consciousness and Moral Rationality (文化意識與道德理性; 1958). I first look at the text’s remarks on textuality and philosophy, which I treat as implicit metacommentaries, before providing an account of Tang’s use of philosophical textuality as filling in the gap between philosophical knowledge (understood as ideality) and reality, or Heaven (天) and earth (地).
On the one hand, Tang regards writing and language as means to communicate with the spiritual realm. That is, language enables one to communicate what Tang calls the transcendent self, a universal mind which is not properly one’s own, but is rather shared with every single human being. To the extent that the transcendent self is entirely autonomous from socio-historical contingencies, language that expresses it is also viewed as belonging to a realm of ideality which, in theory, no longer bears the mark of social reality.
On the other hand, however, Tang regards philosophy as a dialectical process enabling our acting on the world, whose ultimate goal is to gradually reshape reality in the image of the ideality voiced by the transcendent self. Philosophical textuality thus sits in between Heaven and earth, allowing a dialogue between the two, and entrusting to the community of readers the sacred task of making the ideal real; of changing the world by following the blueprint offered by the text. The text, within such an understanding, can be seen as a decree from Heaven, or at least its interpreter, the philosopher/sage.
One of the goals of this discourse, I suggest, is to provide a symbolic purification of the author and reader from the limitations of social realities, by creating parallel and symbolic societies in writing. Within such an understanding of philosophical textuality, the philosopher plays the role of a symbolic emperor entrusted with the authorities of the mandate of Heaven (the realm of ideality Tang is said to have accessed through enlightenment) and tradition (Tang inherits the Confucian task of completing the universe by reshaping the human and the earth in the form of Heaven). I argue that despite its regarding philosophical textuality as autonomous from the social, however, the text betrays a social desire to reinstate the authority of the Confucian sage in the image of imperial polity.

“When China Faces the World: Engagement or Disengagement? Marking the Centenary Anniversary of the May 4th Movement”
Nordic Association for China Studies Conference 2019
Bergen (Norway)

Conference Website

Two panels (co-organized with Geir Sigurdsson) on “Why Study New Confucianism Today? – A Chinese Studies' Perspective”
Abstract: In recent years, research on New Confucianism (xin rujia/xin ruxue) has noticeably surged in European and American centres of learning. The focus has been largely set on figures such as Xiong Shili, Liang Shuming, Mou Zongsan, Tang Junyi, and Tu Weiming and particularly but not exclusively on the philosophical merit of their writings. In this panel, we bring together a group of scholars who have studied New Confucianism from a variety of perspectives and with different academic interests in view. Each scholar will step back from specific research interests and offer a reflection on why she or he believes New Confucianism is more generally worthy of being studied today. The panel's ambition is to present a spectrum of different and hopefully controversial views on the relevance of the study of New Confucianism today, which is not necessarily restricted to its purely philosophical value, but ventures into reflections that critically include broader social, political and perhaps economical concerns. The aim is to bring the interdisciplinary setup of Chinese Studies to bear on a nuanced discussion on the relevance of New Confucianism against the background of contemporary debates about whether to engage or disengage with China.

Papers to be presented:
Philippe Major, “A Manifesto for the Re-appraisal of New Confucianism”
Abstract: Published in 1958, the New Confucian Manifesto purports to address a particular readership: that of Sinologists working in the “West.” One of the central claims around which the Manifesto is structured is the idea that to understand Chinese culture properly, one must immerse oneself in it and study it from the inside. In this talk, I propose that to better understand the New Confucian movement – assuming for a moment that such a movement there is – we should do precisely the opposite of what the Manifesto proposes: we should look at New Confucianism from the outside. I will suggest that too often, scholarship on New Confucianism has read the texts on their own terms, that is as disembodied philosophical treatises partaking in a global philosophical dialogue. While I recognize the potential value of such an approach, it has had for consequence a certain tendency to ignore aspects of the movement that are not strictly philosophical; whether these aspects be political, religious, and/or sociological. In opposition to a rather decontextualized philosophical method, I will propose an alternative approach – understood as one possibility among others – centred on a sociological reading of New Confucian philosophical textuality. By situating New Confucian texts in between the social realm and the symbolic society of readers and authors established in writing, and by understanding philosophical textuality as a state of tension between the particular and the universal, I suggest that new dimensions of New Confucianism will emerge; new dimensions that question our very understanding not only of the movement itself, but also of the hegemonic struggles that structure the philosophical field.

Ralph Weber, “The Philosophical (Ir-)Relevance of Anything: Choices of Detour and Appropriation in the Study of Modern Confucianism”
Abstract: In this presentation, I want to distinguish specific and general reasons why Modern Confucianism should be studied today. I will offer what might strike others as a paradoxical argument and demand more sociological and historical inquiries into New Confucian philosophy in order to ensure that the most philosophically relevant reading may emerge. These necessary detours do not work against the act of philosophical appropriation, but enable it – as hermeneutical philosophers from Gadamer to Ricoeur have long known. Avoiding the danger of falling into the trap of subjectivism, a constructive use of the interdisciplinary setup of Chinese Studies might be called for. I will offer examples based on the study of third generation New Confucian Tu Weiming. In the end, I will raise a concern that Philip Kitcher has expressed a few years back in his seminal article on “Philosophy Inside Out” (Metaphilosophy 2011), which will allow me to discuss the philosophical relevance and/or irrelevance of anything, including Modern Confucianism.

Paper to be presented: 
Philippe Major, “Chen Duxiu’s May Fourth Between Utopia and Dystopia”

Conference Website

Antonio de Caro (Hong Kong Baptist University): “The ethics of self-cultivation and cosmogony between neo-Confucianism and Jesuit spirituality during late Qing dynasty: The Case of Angelo Zottoli (Chao Deli 晁德蒞)”, Institute for European Global Studies.


  • Philippe Major, “The Politics of Writing Chinese Philosophy: Xiong Shili’s New Treatise on the Uniqueness of Consciousness and the ‘Crystallization of Oriental Philosophy.’” Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 18, no. 2 (June 2019).
  • Ralph Weber, “Tu Weiming,” in The Dao Companion to Contemporary New Confucian Philosophy, edited by David Elstein. Dordrecht: Springer. Forthcoming.