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Philosophy Professor’s Teenage Discovery of Neo-Confucianism Leads to Book

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Chinese philosophy is widely taught at universities across the nation, says JeeLoo Liu, department chair and professor of philosophy. But for lack of a suitable introduction, she adds, few instructors venture to teach neo-Confucianism and most American scholars in Chinese philosophy still restrict their research to ancient Chinese philosophy.

Not Liu. Her book, “Neo-Confucianism: Metaphysics, Mind and Morality,” aims to fill the gap of the understanding of Chinese philosophy. With accessible language and sophisticated philosophical analysis, she hopes to inspire Western philosophers to gain a philosophical appreciation of neo-Confucianism. The book was published by Wiley in June.

Her first book, “An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy: From Ancient Philosophy to Chinese Buddhism,” is used by instructors in China, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, as well as in the United States. It was recently translated into Polish for use in Poland’s academe. She’s hoping the new book will have the same success.

What is the subject of your book?

My book is about neo-Confucianism, which refers to the main philosophical development in China between the 11th and the 18th centuries. The book sets neo-Confucianism in the context of contemporary philosophy and makes it relevant to current philosophical discourse. It gives a detailed philosophical analysis of eight central figures in Chinese neo-Confucianism from the Song-Ming era.

How did you become interested in the topic?

When I was 15 I read a self-narrative by Wang Fuzhi, a neo-Confucian philosopher in the late Ming era, and was deeply moved by his reclusive sentiment in a land besieged by the Manchus and his resolve to revive classical Chinese Confucianism through his writings for the rest of his life in seclusion. I chose philosophy as my undergraduate major because of this. When I was an undergraduate at National Taiwan University, I found that neo-Confucian writings touched the core of my being, and I became hooked on neo-Confucianism.

What new or surprising information did you discover during your research?

It has been a road to discovery of the shared concerns that neo-Confucians had with contemporary philosophers. Each new interpretation and reconstruction has been an exciting adventure in my analysis. I also found that neo-Confucians’ moral philosophy is fundamentally grounded in their metaphysical views. I am proud to have developed an interpretative structure that threads through their metaphysics, their views on the foundation of morality and their practical moral programs.

Can you give an example of engaging neo-Confucianism with today’s philosophical questions and debates?

One leading moral theory today is virtue ethics, but a great challenge to virtue ethics comes from situationism. John Doris in his 2002 book “Lack of Character” argues that changes in people’s behavior are due more to situational factors than to their character traits; therefore, it is a futile task to try to cultivate people’s virtues. Neo-Confucian ethics is a form of virtue ethics as well. This book addresses this challenge and examines how each neo-Confucian philosopher’s proposal on cultivating moral virtue could meet the challenge of situationism.