Interdisciplinary and Cross-Cultural Approaches to Society
The second research theme focuses on normative questions concerning the relation between individual and society, with one focus on ethical discourses about dignity and the other on the implications of plurality in the political realm. In the West, normative issues are often addressed in terms of individualist conceptions of human dignity and plurality (Habermas 1997; Rawls 1993). The problem for cross-cultural discourse is that these concepts are modern inventions whose philosophical foundations and historical conditions are insufficiently reflected (see Düwell 2014; Tully 2013). Against this background, there are growing concerns about the potential imperialism of a discourse dominated by Western traditions (Lee 2008; Allen 2015).
A first attempt to open up this discourse has been made by bringing Western traditions into conversations with Confucian ethical and political thought. Ethical theorists such as Zhang (2000) and Ni (2011) have suggested that Confucianism develops a unique idea of human dignity, focusing on the ideal of the true “gentleman” (junzi), while the noted Canadian political theorist Daniel Bell (2015) has put forth a specifically Confucian understanding of good governance referred to as “the China model.” Although this has significantly advanced intercultural dialogue, this research theme starts from the assumption that it is now time to take the next step in the project of decentering and to increase the complexity on both sides of the debate. We propose to do this in two ways: 1) by investigating how the notions of dignity and plurality—fundamental to Western ethical and political theory—have to be contextually revised and critically reconstructed in conversation with the Chinese tradition; and 2) by bringing Daoism into this conversation as a voice that has until now been largely neglected but that offers some of the richest intellectual resources from the Chinese tradition.
The project will thus investigate how far Daoist approaches to ethics and politics can contribute to overcoming the dichotomy between individualist and collectivist approaches that often structure the exchange between Western (“liberal”) and Chinese (“Confucian”) ways of thinking. It will do so by focusing on three issues.
A first issue to be addressed concerns Daoism’s contribution to developing an alternative methodology for ethical and political thought by starting from actual practices and our lived engagement in the world rather than from ideal principles and their application (Miller 2017; Kohn 2005).
A second issue concerns Daoism’s radically different view of the dignity and potential of human beings. While Confucian ethics gives much weight to social roles, Daoism emphasizes the inherent freedom of the person (Zhang Qianfan 2000). For Daoism, a good person is not defined by her social roles, rituals, and obligations but is called upon to be free and to practice her spontaneity (ziran). Discarding the instrumental rationale for developing a technology of governance based on a dualistic distinction between right and wrong, Daoism proposes a thoroughly relational understanding of human dignity, thereby avoiding individualist as well as collectivist extremes.
The third focus will be on the role and significance of plurality and diversity that Daoism—in contrast to certain strands of Confucianism—does not conceptualize as obstacles to good and efficient governance but rather as a human reality that has to be acknowledged as irreducible and good in itself (Daodejing 51). This understanding of diversity has implications for our understanding of the public sphere and of politics that not only go beyond the contrast between democracy and meritocracy familiar from debates about “the China model” but question the underlying dichotomy between the West and China itself, a dichotomy that so often crystallizes around the issue of human rights. The project aims to move this debate forward by connecting it through the trialogical model to questions of gender and embodiment, and the value of non-human animals, landscapes and ecologies, as they appear in Daoism.