John Dewey and Confucian Thought

Experiments in Intra-cultural Philosophy, Volume Two

By Jim Behuniak

Subjects: Comparative Philosophy, Chinese Religion And Philosophy, American Philosophy, Philosophy
Series: SUNY series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture
Hardcover : 9781438474472, 430 pages, August 2019
Paperback : 9781438474465, 430 pages, January 2020

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Table of contents

List of Illustrations
Dewey’s Chinese Dinners
Part I.

1. John Dewey and Intra-cultural Naturalism
Dissolving the Blank Slate
Humanism and Intra-cultural Philosophy
Continuity and Common Sense
Culture and the “Return Wave”
Cultural Relations and Reconstruction

2. Education and Tradition
Learning (xue 學) and Personhood
Dewey Arrives in China
Education and Its Reach
Learning and Thinking
The Dao 道 of Tradition

3. Custom and Reconstruction
Breakthroughs in China
Li 禮 and Custom
Toward a “Social Philosophy,” Part One
Custom and Reflection
Ren 仁 and Human Association

4. Pluralism and Democracy
Democracy vs. The Melting Pot
Guojia 國家 and the “Great Community”
Three Complimentary Studies
Toward a “Social Philosophy,” Part Two
Dewey Leaves China
Part II

5. Roles and Exemplars
The Analects as Virtue Ethics
Exemplarism and the Denotative Method
Role Ethics and Human Nature
Hitting the Mark (zhong 中)
Morality is Social

6. Humans and Nature
Naturalizing Heaven
Spiritualizing Nature
Understanding Human Nature
The Goodness (shan 善) of Human Nature
Nature and Normality

7. Harmony and Growth
Family and Human Nature
The Norm of Harmony (he 和)
The Meaning of Growth
Family Experience and Non-Dualism
Culture and Adaptation

8. Integration and Religiousness
Integration (cheng 誠) and Adjustment
Recovering the Forfeiture
Ideals and the Actual
Communion and the Human Spirit
Returning to China

Works Cited

Assesses John Dewey’s visit to China in 1919–21 as an “intra-cultural” episode and promotes “Chinese natural philosophy” as a philosophical context in which to understand the connections between Dewey’s philosophy and early Confucian thinking.


In this conclusion to his two-volume series, Jim Behuniak builds upon the groundbreaking work begun in John Dewey and Daoist Thought in arguing that "Chinese natural philosophy" is the proper hermeneutical context in which to understand early Confucianism. First, he traces Dewey's late-period "cultural turn" in more detail and then proceeds to assess Dewey's visit to China in 1919–21 as a multifaceted "intra-cultural" episode: one that includes not only what Dewey taught his Chinese audiences, but also what he learned in China and what we stand to learn from this encounter today.

"Dewey in China" provides an opportunity to continue establishing "specific philosophical relationships" between Dewey and Confucian thought for the purpose of getting ourselves "back in gear" with contemporary thinking in the social and natural sciences. To this end, Behuniak critically assesses readings of early Chinese thought reliant on outdated Greek-medieval assumptions, paying particular attention to readings of early Confucianism that rely heavily on Western virtue ethics, such as the "Heaven's plan" reading. Topics covered include education, tradition, ethics, the family, human nature, and religiousness—thus engaging Dewey with themes generally associated with Confucian thought.

Jim Behuniak is Professor of Philosophy at Colby College. He is the author of John Dewey and Daoist Thought: Experiments in Intra-cultural Philosophy, Volume One and Mencius on Becoming Human, both also published by SUNY Press.


"John Dewey and Confucian Thought demonstrates vividly how real problems and experience during and after his visit to China shaped Dewey's 'cultural turn.' … The richly textured and engaging book draws extensively on Dewey's correspondences, his collected works, the recently discovered notes of his lectures on social and political philosophy in China, pre-Qin Confucian texts, especially the Analects and the Mencius, recently excavated ancient Chinese texts, relevant secondary literature, as well as scientific and social scientific studies on various subjects." — Journal of Chinese Philosophy

"With this two-volume set, Behuniak has produced an exemplary work of intra-cultural philosophy. The dynamic interplay between Dewey's and Confucian/Daoist philosophies percolates spiritedly in its pages, the contemporary relevance of the exchange never in doubt. Behuniak's meticulous scholarship leaves no stone unturned, while his incisive analyses offer critical and productive contributions to ongoing dialogues. There is much to be gained from this book; I would recommend it highly to anyone." — Mathew A. Foust, Reading Religion

"Naturally, the two volumes can and perhaps ought to be read separately since they stand firmly on their own footings and provide ample opportunity for learning and reflection. Nevertheless, as one is complementary to the other, it is recommended that the reader who wishes to invest in a layered understanding of how pragmatism and democratic commitments could be harmonized with Daoist spontaneity and Confucian ritualism read both of them. This way one comes to fully appreciate the complete picture that is depicted masterfully by Behuniak." — Religious Studies Review

"Attacking the distinction of Eastern versus Western philosophical cultures, these volumes create a detailed intra-cultural Deweyan-Chinese thought on many levels at once. Using Dewey to reinterpret the Daoist and Confucian traditions from their sources, Behuniak weaves an intra-cultural philosophical trajectory that stretches from the sixth-century BCE China to Columbia University in New York City. The result is one of the philosophical masterpieces of our time." — Robert Cummings Neville, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology, Boston University