As China flexes its muscle as a global economic force, a fresh look at Eastern philosophical traditions in dialogue with Western ideas can shed light on dilemmas accompanying the country’s rise, according to scholars at a Harvard roundtable discussion Friday.
Speakers in the forum, at Tsai Auditorium, included Harvard philosopher Michael J. Sandel, whose books and lectures have earned him a robust following in China and across East Asia. The event was organized by the Harvard-Yenching Institute and moderated by the institute’s director, Henry Rosovsky Professor of Government Elizabeth Perry.
Sandel has a “wonderful knack” for making philosophical arguments widely accessible, Perry said, adding that his popularity reflects “an admirable thirst on the part of the younger generation in East Asia and in this country as well, searching for answers in a rapidly changing world, a world of commercialization.”
The event marked the publication of “Encountering China: Michael Sandel and Chinese Philosophy,” a book of essays in which leading scholars of the Confucian tradition respond to the ideas of Harvard’s Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government.
Joseph C.W. Chan, a professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong, lauded Sandel for spurring his audiences in the U.S. and East Asia to “critically reason together,” and for “challenging people’s assumptions.”
Chan posed his own challenge to Confucian scholars, including himself in a group that has “yet to grapple with the sociological challenge of advancing the Confucian agenda in modern society.” He asked Sandel, “Other than promoting free and public philosophizing, what could we realistically do to foster Confucian or civic republican ideas of virtues and community in modern society?”
“There are ways of teaching virtues not just in schools, not just didactically, but through the organization of everyday life and social life,” Sandel responded.
For his part, Hahm Chaibong, president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in South Korea, said he worried about potential dangers of an over-embrace of Confucianism in China.