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'Confucian China in a Changing World Order’ topic of Thompson Lecture

Barry McNamara
MONMOUTH, Ill. – Nearly 30 years ago at the University of Hawai’i, Roger Ames helped start the East-West Center’s Asian Studies Development Program. A chief reason, he said, was “the mostly Eurocentric population of American educators couldn’t see that Asia was coming on the horizon.”

That new day has since dawned, and Ames will address China specifically on Feb. 27 when he delivers Monmouth College’s annual Samuel M. Thompson Lecture.

Ames will speak about “Confucian China in a Changing World Order” at 7 p.m. in the Morgan Room of the College’s Poling Hall. The talk is free and open to the public.

His lecture at Monmouth will address the possible impact Confucianism – a philosophy that begins from the primacy of relationality – will have on world culture in the ensuing decades.

Ames says a “perfect storm” is brewing in Asia. Problems include climate change, food and water shortages, environmental degradation, pandemics, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, energy shortage and gross income inequality. He believes that an effective response to this human-exacerbated predicament requires a radical change in values, intentions and practices.

“In a short time, China has gone from an ideological, Marxist-driven economy to having the second-largest economy, and it’s probably five to 10 years away from having the largest,” said Ames. “There’s been a sea change economically and politically. But about the sociological change?”

Confucianism, according to Ames, does not mean studying Confucius – a person – in the way that Christianity or Marxism revolves around the life and teachings of one person.

Rather, Confucianism refers to a social class and has the goal of “aestheticizing the human experience – making it fine, making it noble.”

Ames contends that Confucianism stands in opposition to the ideology of individualism, where the “free, self-reliant individual dominates the social and political discussion.”

“But there’s no such thing as the individual,” he said. “We live collectively. Confucianism is about the collective conception of a person. You can’t be a great dad without having a great kid, and you can’t be a great kid without having a great dad. You can’t be a great teacher without great students, and on and on. There are winners and winners, losers and losers. It’s about the relational concept of a person, and some of our cutting-edge Western philosophers are moving their thinking in that direction.”

Ames call individualism “the doctrine of winners and losers.”

“If you believe in individualism, then you believe America and China are in a zero-sum game – there’ll be winners and losers,” he said. “This rhetoric is in play today with ‘America First.’”

Ames was asked how to better spread the word about the value of Confucianism.

“Confucianism is not the answer – that’s the point,” he replied. “My argument is that it’s not the solution, but it should have a place at the table. When you’re dealing with China or India, you need a different language. China has 300 million more people than Africa and twice the population of Europe. We better pay attention to it. My generation – and perhaps the next generation – got away with not knowing so much about China and its traditions. But for the younger generation, China is going to be in their face.”

Ames is Humanities Chair Professor at Peking University, a Berggruen Fellow, and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Hawai’i. He is former editor of Philosophy East & West and founding editor of China Review International. From 1991-2000, he was the director of the Center for Chinese Studies and he remains co-director of the Asian Studies Development Program, for which he has been successful in obtaining multiple National Endowment for the Humanities and Fulbright grants.

Samuel M. Thompson, for whom the College’s lecture series is named, served in the philosophy department at Monmouth for 46 years. After graduating from Monmouth in 1924 with a degree in English, he earned master’s degree and Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University. Most notable among his publications were two popular textbooks: A Modern Philosophy of Religion and The Nature of Philosophy. Thompson died in 1983.