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A Dialogue between Confucius and Dr. John Dewey

Time: December 7, 1951.
Place: Confucius' hometown, Chi-Fu, San-Dong, China.

Confucius: Welcome, Dr. Dewey! Is it not delightful to have friends coming from distant quarters?1

Dewey: Indeed, it is delightful, Master. It is a change of pace from my daily life in the United States.

Confucius: According to the research done by my disciples, you are called one of the most influential philosophers and educators in the United States. I am honored that you can come to visit my humble house.

Dewey: To borrow your own words, fine words and an insinuating appearance are seldom associated with true virtue.2 Hah, hah, hah, just kidding.

Confucius: I am almost offended. If the scholar be not grave, he will not call forth any veneration, and his learning will not be solid . . . Have no friends not equal to yourself.3 Even my student, Tsang, said, "I daily examine myself, . . . , whether, in intercourse with friends, I may have been not sincere.4"

Dewey: Thank you, sir. You are too grave to have humor. Let me ask you a sincere question, then: What is the Great Learning? That is, what is higher education for?

Confucius: What the Great Learning teaches, is to illustrate illustrious virtue; to renovate the people; and to rest in the highest excellence.5

Dewey: Could you elaborate further?

Confucius: The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.6

Dewey: Yes, extension of knowledge lays in the investigation of things. And then?

Confucius: Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated. Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole kingdom was made tranquil and happy.7

Dewey: So the conclusion is . . .

Confucius: From the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything besides.8

Dewey: Very philosophical. (Big grin.) As pragmatic as I am, I preach on more practical learning.

Confucius: When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it; this is knowledge.9 Please state your position, Dr. Dewey.

Dewey: One of our central themes of pragmatism is that philosophy should attempt to solve human problems rather than being occupied with speculative metaphysics. Truth is tentative, a warranted assertion rather than universal and absolute.

Confucius: Sounds like I am talking. (Grin.)

Dewey: (Chuckle.) No, no, no, listen further, Master. I believe that truth is derived from human experience. It involves the testing or verification of an idea by acting upon it and determining if the consequences of such action resolve the particular problem.

Confucius: Do you also call it Great Learning?

Dewey: No, Master. It is experimentalism. We examine institutions and values in terms of their response to the changing circumstances of American life. We argue that no longer could institutions and values rest on traditionalism and maintenance of the status quo.

Confucius: I can see I am in trouble here. You completely reject my traditionalism. Five thousand years of Chinese culture go down the drain. (Sigh!)

Dewey: I am sorry for that. That is what I see and what I believe. I have lived through a series of momentous events that shaped the patterns of modern life. It is not easy to be a ninety-three-year-old man.

Confucius: Talk about turbulent life. You should have been in the era after my life -- the warring nations and factions in the later Chou Dynasty.

Dewey: Listen to this. In my life, I have seen two World Wars, not to mention the American Civil War when I was a toddler. I saw the United States went through a great transformation from a predominantly rural and agricultural economy to one that was industrial and technological.

Confucius: I envy you that you live in a great country in its prime time.

Dewey: Indeed, no doubt about it. I have lived through the major political transformations of the progressive movement, the Great Depression, and the New Deal. Right now the United States is one of two great world powers in the age of nuclear weapons and energy.

Confucius: Look at what the Communists have done to the great people of China! I can see the Chinese culture is on the edge of a disaster.

Dewey: Back to my progressive learning. Education is a process of intelligently solving problems using the scientific method rather than the study and mastery of bodies of knowledge organized into subjects.

Confucius: Interesting ideas indeed. But isn't it true that, in some schools, teachers just skimmed the surface of your philosophy? It was said that they took certain key words and phrases such as "learning by doing," "the activity method," "problem solving," and "children's interests and needs" and designed units and lessons around them. These educators found a certain liberating appeal in these specific parts of your work without accepting your whole philosophy.

Dewey: It is sad to say that it is true. But these things happen when your ideas are implemented widely. Isn't it also true that the rulers throughout the Chinese history used your traditionalism to defend their status of quo?

Confucius: (Sad face.) It was true. I used to say that to rule a country of a thousand chariots, there must be reverent attention to business, and sincerity; economy in expenditure, and love for men; and the employment of the people at the proper seasons.10

Dewey: There you go!

Confucius: They always quoted my saying, like, "He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn toward it."11

Dewey: You advocate an emperor state.

Confucius: I understand that you advocate a democratic society as an environment most conducive for the application of the scientific method and for the creation of a truly sharing community. But you have to realize the era of my time. And you cannot deny that if the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of shame, and, moreover, will become good.12

Dewey: You are absolutely right. People that are as famous as us are bound to be misquoted sometimes. (Both sigh at the same time.)

Confucius: Can I say that your experimentalism and pragmatism in a certain degree lead to the materialism in the United States?

Dewey: I protest. It is misquotation and definitely a misconception. People tend to forget that my philosophy goes back to the ideas of Plato and company. In my book, The Quest for Certainty, I examined Western philosophy's tendency to structure reality into two dimensions. One was perfect and unchanging and the other was temporary and changing. Philosophers such as Plato concentrated on the perfect world but neglected the world of human experience. Plato argued that reality was based on the form of good, from which all ideas were derived. I may say that Plato and you are twins in another life. (Big grin.) Anyway, based upon this belief in two worlds, philosophy in the Western world emphasized the perfect world, which was beyond human experience, and ignored the reality of the world of everyday life. I just redirect it to the empirical world of everyday experience and advised human beings to deal with the problems of life there. Is it materialistic, Master?

Confucius: I may be wrong there, but to correct the society ills in the modern American life, can the American take some advices from us?

Dewey: Please enlighten me.

Confucius: The current problems of American society were created by social choices. They are not individual moral dilemmas but results from the failures of society's institutions. My notion of "li," which means ritual, also refers to the everyday way one relates to others in the world. If we see that the forms of social life have a kind of ritual element to them, we view institutions differently. Americans on the whole don't have that sense. Everything for Americans tends to be viewed as utilitarian, or may I say, pragmatistic.

Dewey: Are you attacking me again? (Reluctant grin.)

Confucius: May I continue? Although there was also a counter-cultural belief that any social form or ritual is constraining and must be knocked down, that very rejection of social forms is itself a social form. It's hard for Americans to see, for instance, that in order for a friendship to be maintained it has to have a kind of ritual form to it. Otherwise, it's so easy to be exploitive. The American society has some social rituals and forms, but relative to Chinese societies, the Americans don't value or cultivate them.

Dewey: Hmm . . . , I shall give it some thoughts.

Confucius: Please do, Dr. Dewey. As I like to preach, "Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous."13

Dewey: I have learned today from you, Master. We shall get together and chat more another time.

(And the legends of Confucius and Dr. John Dewey continue . . . )

Notes:

Confucius (551-479 B.C.)
Dr. John Dewey (1859-1952)

Reference:


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