2007 Academic Convocation: Suzanne Wilson Barnett

Confucius's Corners and Benjamin Franklin's Disputations
Suzanne Wilson Barnett
Department of History and Asian Studies Program

I join others in welcoming you all to this happy session of recognition of student achievement, and I am pleased to take my place with the Class of '07 in moving on from the university. I have fond memories of classes with many of this year's graduates.

Don't be surprised if certain watchwords of my recent ruminations on teaching and learning enter into what follows, notably "students' intellectual autonomy," "intellectual community," and "juxtaposition" (this last, as many of you know, is a mechanism of analytical thinking based on pairs of things that are not necessarily at odds but not normally brought into the same conversation). Hence you'll see the linking of Confucius (Master Kong) and Benjamin Franklin, both philosopher-educators who concerned themselves with issues of civil society in its formative stages in their very different places and times, respectively "Warring States" China in the sixth to fifth centuries BCE and revolutionary America in the emergence of what would become the United States in the late eighteenth century CE. You also may sense imagination, the stuff of thinking otherwise in any university setting, most especially a liberal arts college like this one.

"The trouble with you, Mr. Franklin," said Master Kong, "is that for you discussion is often just a game. Your so-called Junto group is no more than a drinking society."

"Not so," said Benjamin Franklin, "for discussion with an edge of Inquiry and Doubt gets us somewhere by pushing out ideas to an ever-expanding range of possibilities. You stop midstream, before anything is either deconstructed or explored, by the intrusion of your arbitrary judgments, your 'Way.'"

Generations of Puget Sound students of Chinese history have been both horrified and motivated by what might be termed the pedagogical challenge of Master Kong (known in European languages as Confucius) as posed in the Analects, a work produced by Confucius's students to record the master's sayings. As the most relevant analect goes, "Only one who bursts with eagerness do I instruct; only one who bubbles with excitement, do I enlighten. If I hold up one corner and a man cannot come back to me with the other three, I do not continue the lesson."[1] On the one hand, this Confucian analect is at the heart of our liberal arts mission at Puget Sound with the Master's seeming objective of relying on students' intellectual autonomy. On the other hand, the analect undermines our style as a liberal arts college toward fostering intellectual community, working together to create and work with ideas. In fact, it even undermines intellectual autonomy by the apparent expectation that the missing three corners are fixed entities to be divined, not open for definition other than what the Master already has in mind.

Over many years students have taken offense at Confucius's arrogance, some insisting that he owes them all four corners clearly articulated in simple terms. Others, particularly in recent years, warm to the idea of the task of providing the remaining three corners, no matter that the challenge seems to assume a particular set of three corners, as if we must read the Master's mind.

Most of us like the possibility of one corner laid down with one or two corners as "homework," and one or two corners worked out in class. This takes care of both intellectual autonomy and intellectual community, and it might even permit an improvement over what the Master thought he wanted--what a teacher gets in response to questions should go beyond what the teacher imagined as the answers.

Thinking otherwise in a group of two or more fits in with ideas about the construction of knowledge and the phenomenon of learning of another philosopher-educator, one quite different from Confucius, even though both were bulwarks of educational innovation in their own time and in their separate traditions separated by two millennia. Benjamin Franklin's curiosity kept him at the business of acquiring information and making it useful over his entire life, or at least that is the way he tells things in his autobiography, which like Confucius's Analects is a classic. (If you have not read either of these works, think about doing so--remember that one definition of a liberal arts education is "You may not have read it, but you know you should"--put these texts into your list of prospects).

One need not be a specialist in Franklinism to draw meaning from Franklin's autobiography on many levels. If one has interest in the principles of non-profit fundraising, institutions of civic virtue, or practical solutions to problems in what could be labeled the social sciences or what could be labeled the sciences, Franklin is available.

In one particular, Franklin has offered an affirmation of the principle that independent learning is not threatened by, but is well served by, the presence of another in the pursuit. The juxtaposition of personalities and ideas is a way to perfect the art of argument to make a point, to hone an explanation by engaging in the possibility of counter-argument thinking, and to push beyond the ordinary interpretation toward something that might be sharper, more distinctive.

Standing out from Franklin's representation of the performance of his life is his effort to foster disputation as a style of interaction that promotes civic virtue and civil society. Yes, dispute can serve community, and it does so by going beneath the surface of the easy consensus toward deriving at least tentative conclusions that have real meaning. Franklin even went so far as to found a society for the sake of disputation, something like the literary and debating societies of the OxBridge colleges and the Ivy League a century or more ago, perhaps also the women's clubs of the United States that began in the late nineteenth century.[2]

In founding his Junto, a social group for the sharing and discussion of ideas with members presenting papers on subjects of their choice, Franklin followed out the human possibilities of curiosity, wonder, and judgment. According to Franklin's autobiography, his Junto (a word in common currency at the time to suggest collective engagement of political and intellectual ideas) may have had its origin in Franklin's encounter with an English grammar book that included an essay entitled "Sketches of the Arts of Rhetoric and Logic" to which was appended a "Dispute in the Socratic Method."[3] Franklin downplayed the act of "disputation" in favor of "inquiry and doubt," rather than "abrupt contradiction," in the pursuit of sensible positions of informed understanding. Anyone even mildly aware of Franklin's tendency to take issue and think otherwise, however, can conclude that what he had in mind was, in fact, dispute that offered productive results, not a closing down before working through the argument.[4] The objective was to serve Franklin's perception of a matter of principle, namely, "that Truth, Sincerity, and Integrity in Dealings between Man and Man were of the utmost importance to the Felicity of Life."[5]

Master Kong (Confucius) had in mind something like Franklin's truth, sincerity, and integrity in human interaction for the Master's other three corners. Some of the words used in English to represent Confucian principles in the Analects are the "Way" (an absolute truth defined by the sages and accessible to those who are diligent in their studies and attentive to the obligations of civic leadership), goodness (inclusive of human compassion and moral behavior), and decorum (the performance of the rituals of life consistent with one's station).[6] These were the building blocks of socio-political stability, the best assurance of a secure future, and in Confucius's pedagogy they were open for discovery by divining but not for discussion except for searching out his meaning.

One possibility for bringing together the values of Confucius and Franklin appears in an essay penned by the Japanese writer Nakae Chomin in the late 1880s, during the Meiji era of the construction of a modern Japanese nation state. Having taken the measure of the modern world in part by studying in France, where he discovered the works of the eighteenth-century political philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, Nakae subscribed to the Enlightenment notion of Social Contract. This theory implies something on the order of the following: In uniting into a collective, members submit to rules and regulations that may limit their individual freedom in the interest of serving the whole.

What Nakae seems to favor is guided democracy, and that puts his position ironically in the vicinity of Confucius's notion of guidance of the many by the few who are wise, which is not necessarily democratic. In A Discourse by Three Drunkards on Government, Nakae created a gathering at the home of a fictional "Master Nankai" involving the Champion of European-style national wealth and power on one side and, on the other, the Gentleman of Western learning. Goaded into spirited expression of their respective ideas and plied by the host's generous provision of appropriate libations, Champion and Gentleman went at it, with Gentleman mouthing the point of view of the author (Nakae Chomin) in favor of what could be termed a "Confucian democracy" that sustained moral values and eschewed war.[7]

The Gentleman of Western learning is chided consistently by the Champion of Western-style wealth and power as an idealist whose notions of national self-sufficiency could not work. Gentleman in turn chides Champion's heavy-handed practical realism inclusive of national military expansion as wrong headed and the basis of national insecurity, not security. Sounding like Plato in The Republic, Gentleman reveals his hand when he jumps to disputation with Champion:

"The politicians would surely consider me mad," interrupted the Gentleman of Western Learning. "But I would be most proud to be treated as mad by politicians! Oh, for some scholars! Today's so-called politicians are hopelessly inept at government. Scholars! We need scholars! As the ancients said, 'Unless a philosopher administers the affairs of state, real peace cannot be expected.' How true is the saying!"[8]

Gentleman here may be invoking Plato, but Confucius would have taken Gentleman's point immediately (although he would have a philosopher as advisor to a king and not the person who directly "administers the state"). Confucius would have agreed with Gentleman's subsequent complaint that "when people band together in larger political entities, they live a savage life."[9]

The Champion of Western-style national wealth and power continues to pick away at Gentleman's idealism, just as the "Legalists," or "Realists" of ancient China picked away at the ideas of Confucius as restated by Mencius in his advocacy of an elusive "Goodness" as the highest principle of ruling. Prompted by both Champion and Gentleman, Master Nankai, the host, summarizes and resolves the issues, at least temporarily. Nankai states that Gentleman "wishes to adopt democracy, abolish the military forces that signify hostility, and avoid attack by gaining moral superiority over Europe." Nankai says that Champion, on the other hand, "wishes to send off a great force, conquer another country, expand territories, and gain great profits by capitalizing on the squabbles in Europe." Then Nankai charges both Gentleman and Champion for "worrying too much" about the potential acts of other nations, particularly those in Europe.[10]

Master Nankai, however, seems not unaware of European expansion and its threat to Japan's national survival and the strength of the Japanese nation-state. His position, however, is that both Gentleman and Champion are wrong in terms of what should be Japan's national style: Gentleman's ideas are impractical because not yet tried; Champion's ideas, while up to date with European strategies of nationhood, are impractical because they also hearken back to the feudal values of Japan's warrior past.[11] In the end, Nankai favors (1) constitutionalism, in which the ruler has sovereignty; (2) people's rights, not from the bottom up but as granted by the sovereign and gradually expanded; and (3) a defensive army in case of attack.[12]

Master Nankai's position on the issues satisfies neither Champion nor Gentleman, who both find the Master amusing but hardly compelling (and herein lies a point, for Nankai effectively stated the dominant policy of early Meiji Japan, no matter that that era laid the foundation for Japan's later imperial expansion and thus served Champion's argument). In a short paragraph at the very end of the Discourse one learns that "the two guests never returned," but rumor has it that Gentleman "went to North America" and Champion "went to Shanghai." For his part, Master Nankai, "as always, keeps on drinking."

One does not need to drink spirits in order to think, nor should a Puget Sound graduate need college classrooms and libraries and late-night conversations in the residence halls for the task. The daily challenge before us is to find ways to follow out the liberal arts potential and thus benefit both self and others: Look for that to be discovered, muse on it by wondering, and push toward the recognition of what it means.

Everyday, in every way, complicate at least something that seems simple, thus to keep intellectual autonomy in shape. Also seek out others with whom to share ideas and from whom to learn. The process does best when done in person, in face-to-face conversation. Blogs and chat rooms just don't catch the intensity of real conversation with someone else (or, if need be, with oneself) in taking the measure of something and coming to judgment.

"Master Kong," said Benjamin Franklin, "come to dinner on Sunday after Commencement is over. We have things like forming and sustaining civil society to talk about. Besides, we both love books and learning as a path to human felicity in a world gone into chaos."

"Many thanks, Mr. Franklin, I'll be there; and you might be surprised at how flexible I really am (after all, educated people have been quoting me for a lot longer than they have been quoting you!). Let me join you in putting today's issues into a pattern that draws upon the past in constructing a nobler future. Oh, do you suppose that you also could invite Mr. Nakae Chomin? We could talk about his Discourse essay on government and sample some good tea (or whatever)."


[1]  Confucius, The Analects of Confucius, trans. Arthur Waley (New York: Vintage Books, first published 1938), 124 (VII.8).

[2]  Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (written 1771-1790), in Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography and Other Writings, ed. Kenneth Silverman (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), 59.

[3]  Franklin, 16.

[4]  Franklin, 17.

[5]  Franklin, 57.

[6]  The Chinese terms are Tao, ren, and li, respectively.

[7]  Marius Jansen, "Foreword," in NAKAE Chomin, A Discourse by Three Drunkards on Government (first published in Japanese, 1887), trans. Nobuko TSUKUI (New York: Weatherhill, 1984), 9.

[8]  Nakae, 90.

[9]  Nakae, 87.

[10] Nakae, 130.

[11] Nakae, 122.

[12] Nakae, 136-137.