Zhu Xi and the Liberalism/Communitarianism Debate: An Imperfect Fit

  • Catherine Hudak KlancerEmail author
Part of the Dao Companions to Chinese Philosophy book series (DCCP, volume 13)


This chapter explores how Zhu Xi might engage in the recent debate between liberal and communitarian philosophers concerning the nature of the human self. After giving a brief introduction to arguments on both sides, I consider places of agreement between Zhu and liberal philosophers before identifying points of consensus between him and communitarian thinkers. Having explored this common ground, I present his elitism as a factor that prevents him from fitting neatly into either side of the debate, and claim further that his cosmological theory makes it impossible for him to fit into the debate as a whole. The chapter concludes by reflecting on the broader implications of Zhu’s incompatibility with the other participants in the debate under discussion.



The author would like to thank Huang Yong, Ng Kai-chiu, Brian Loh, Michael Ing, and Stephanie Nelson for their valuable feedback and advice concerning earlier drafts of this essay.


  1. Angle, Stephen. 2009. Sagehood: The Contemporary Significance of Neo-Confucian Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press. (An insightful and wide-ranging reflection on why the Confucian understanding of sagehood continues to matter).Google Scholar
  2. Bell, Daniel. 2016. “Communitarianism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, March 21, 2016. (This is an introduction to communitarian thought, including a brief discussion of points of contact and difference between it and the Confucian tradition.)
  3. Carlyle, Thomas. 1840. Heroes and Hero Worship. London: Chapman and Hall Ltd. (A work famously claiming that history is moved by great men.)Google Scholar
  4. Chang, Carsun. 1957. The Development of Neo-Confucian Thought. New York: Bookman Associates. (A classic discussion of the Confucian revival beginning in the eighth century CE and flourishing in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.)Google Scholar
  5. Chang, Yu. 2010. “The Spirit of the School of Principles in Zhu Xi’s Discussion of ‘Dreams’—And on ‘Confucius Did Not Dream of Duke Zhou.’” Translated by Deyuan. Frontiers of Philosophy in China 5.1: 94–110. (An analysis of Zhu’s work on dreams.)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Elstein, David. 2009. “The Authority of the Master in the Analects.” Philosophy East and West 59.2: 142–172. (An analysis of the relationship between Confucius and his students as depicted in the Analects.)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Fingarette, Herbert. 1972. Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. Long Grove: Waveland Press. (A modern classic of Confucian philosophical interpretation.)Google Scholar
  8. Gardner, Daniel K. 1986. Chu Hsi and the Ta-hsueh: Neo-Confucian Reflection on the Confucian Canon. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (An explanation of how Zhu Xi interprets the Daxue.)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. ———. 2007. The Four Books: The Basic Teachings of the Later Confucian Tradition. Indianapolis: Hackett. (An introduction to the Four Books, with commentary on selected passages from each that draws on Zhu Xi’s work.)Google Scholar
  10. Huang, Yong. 1996. “Zhu Xi on Humanity and Love: A Neo-Confucian Solution to the Liberal–Communitarian Problematic.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 23.2: 213–235. (An alternative understanding of how Zhu fits into the liberal/communitarian debate.)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. ———. 1998. Religious Goodness and Political Rightness: Beyond the Liberal–Communitarian Debate. New York: Bloomsbury Press. (An argument for reading the liberal/communitarian debate as fundamentally about different prioritizations of the right and the good.)Google Scholar
  12. ———. 2008. “Neo-Confucian Hermeneutics at Work: Cheng Yi’s Philosophical Interpretation of Analects 8.9 and 17.3.” Harvard Theological Review 101:69–201. (A deep and thoughtful reading of important passages in the Analects.)Google Scholar
  13. ———. 2011. “Two Dilemmas in Virtue Ethics and How Zhu Xi’s Neo-Confucianism Avoids Them.” Journal of Philosophical Research 36: 247–281. (An exploration of resources in the Confucian tradition helpful in solving problems raised in Western virtue ethics theory.)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. ———. 2013. Confucius: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Bloomsbury. (A deeply informed and insightful discussion of various topics in Confucian moral philosophy.)Google Scholar
  15. Ivanhoe, Philip J. 2016. Three Streams: Confucian Reflections on Learning & the Moral Heart-Mind in China, Korea and Japan. New York: Oxford University Press. (A masterful discussion of how Confucians in three countries reacted to Zhu Xi’s turn toward metaphysics in the centuries that followed him.)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Kim, Yung Sik. 2015. “Zhu Xi on Scientific and Occult Subjects.” In Returning to Zhu Xi, edited by David Jones and Jinli He. Albany: State University of New York Press. (An introduction to the astonishing breadth of Zhu Xi’s intellectual agenda.)Google Scholar
  17. Klancer, Catherine H. 2015. Embracing Our Complexity: Zhu Xi and Thomas Aquinas on Power and the Common Good. Albany: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  18. Knapp, Keith. 2012. “Sympathy and Severity: The Father–Son Relationship in Early Medieval China.” Extrême-Orient Extrême-Occident Hors-série 2012: 113–136. (An exploration of the complex parent/child relationship in medieval China, as depicted in filial piety stories and their pictorial representations.)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Kymlicka, Will. 1988. “Liberalism and Communitarianism.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 18.2: 181–203. (A defense of liberal thought against communitarian challenges.)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. MacIntyre, Alasdair. 1988. Whose Justice? Which Rationality? London: Duckworth. (An exploration of different accounts of practical reasoning and rationality, and how to judge between them.)Google Scholar
  21. ———. 2007. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. 3. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. (One of the most important texts in the revival of virtue ethics; challenges many liberal views of the self.)Google Scholar
  22. Makeham, John. 2003. Transmitters and Creators: Chinese Commentators and Commentaries on the Analects. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (A magisterial work on both specific commentaries and the importance of the commentarial tradition as a whole.)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Peng, Guoxiang 彭國翔. 2007. Confucian Tradition: Between Religion and Humanism 儒家傳統:宗教與人文主義之間. Beijing 北京: Beijing daxue chuban she 北京大學出版社.Google Scholar
  24. Peng, Guoxiang. 2015. “Spiritual and Bodily Exercise: The Religious Significance of Zhu Xi’s Reading Methods.” Translated by Daniel Coyle and Yahui Anita Huang. In Returning to Zhu Xi, edited by David Jones and Jinli He. Albany: State University of New York Press. (A thoughtful discussion of Zhu’s teachings regarding the importance of reading the Confucian classics in a spirit of lectio divina.)Google Scholar
  25. Rawls, John. 1999. A Theory of Justice. Revised ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (A landmark work of political and ethical philosophy that inspired debate and challenge from libertarian and communitarian thinkers alike.)Google Scholar
  26. Robinson, Marilynne. 2012. “Freedom of Thought.” In When I Was a Child I Read Books, edited by Marilynne Robinson. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (A collection of essays on various contemporary topics.)Google Scholar
  27. Rosemont, Henry, Jr. 2012. A Reader’s Companion to the Confucian Analects. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. (A valuable guide to understanding the philosophy and the ethics of the Analects.)Google Scholar
  28. ———. 2015. Against Individualism: A Confucian Rethinking of the Foundations of Morality, Politics, and Religion. Lanham: Lexington Books. (A thought-provoking exploration of the human self from a Confucian perspective.)Google Scholar
  29. Sandel, Michael. 1996. Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (A critique of the diminished sense of community and citizenship in the United States.)Google Scholar
  30. ———. 1998. Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (A criticism of the thought of John Rawls and others that helped to start the liberal/communitarian debate.)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. ———. 2017. “Harvard University’s JUSTICE with Michael Sandel.” Harvard University. Accessed 28 Aug 2017. (A gateway to Sandel’s absorbing and demanding course on justice.)
  32. Spencer, Herbert. 1896. The Study of Sociology. New York: D. Appleton and Company. (A work exploring the role of society and culture, as opposed to that of the individual, in human history.)Google Scholar
  33. Stalnaker, Aaron. 2016. “Dreaming of a Meritocracy.” Paper presented to the American Academy of Religion Annual Conference, San Antonio, TX, November 22, 2016. (A study of the political and pragmatic realism of ancient Confucian philosophers.)Google Scholar
  34. Taylor, Charles. 1992. Sources of the Self. Reprint edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (An attempt to articulate and write a history of the modern identity, particularly in the West.)Google Scholar
  35. Thompson, Kirill O. 2007. “The Archery of Wisdom in the Stream of Life.” Philosophy East and West, 57.3: 330–344. (An exploration of the innovative and critical elements of Confucian wisdom.)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Tu, Weiming. 1998. “Epilogue.” In Confucianism and Human Rights, edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Tu Weiming. New York: Columbia University Press. (A thoughtful reflection on what Confucian thought has to offer to Western liberalism.)Google Scholar
  37. Van Norden, Bryan. 2007. Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (An analysis of Confucianism as a virtue ethics, and Mohism as a consequentialist, tradition.)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Xunzi 荀子. 1996. Xunzi 荀子., Chinese Philosophical E-Text Archive— Pre-Qin Texts. (The works of the ancient Confucian master Xunzi.)
  39. Yang, Zhiyi. 2012. “Zhu Xi as Poet.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 132.4: 587–611. (A thoughtful engagement with Zhu’s literary theory and poetic output.)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Zheng, Shizhong. 2016. Zhu Xi and Meister Eckhart: Two Intellectual Profiles. Leuven: Peeters. (A comparison of Zhu Xi and Meister Eckhart that draws attention to the role their engagement with the scriptural texts of their respective traditions plays in their thought.)Google Scholar
  41. Zhu, Xi. 1991. Chu Hsi’s Family Rituals: A Twelfth Century Chinese Manual for the Performance of Cappings, Weddings, Funerals and Ancestral Rites. Translated and edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (A very helpful English edition of the Zhuzi Jiali.)Google Scholar
  42. Zhu, Xi 朱熹. 2002. The Entire Works of Zhu Xi 朱子全書. 27 vols. Shanghai 上海: Shanghai guji chubanshe 上海古籍出版社. (A collection of all of Zhu’s formal writings, including his commentary on the Analects and the Jinsilu, as well as his Yulei.)Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Core Curriculum and Department of ReligionBoston UniversityBostonUSA

Personalised recommendations