Fallibilism in Early Confucian Philosophy

Tim Connolly
East Stroudsburg State University
Fallibilism is a precondition for the conversation between culturally distinct philosophies that comparative philosophy tries to bring about. Without an acknowledgement that our own tradition’s claims may be incomplete or mistaken, we would have no reason to engage members of other communities. Were the early Confucians fallibilists? While some contemporary commentators have seen fallibilism as an essential characteristic of the Confucian tradition, others have argued that the tradition is characterized instead by an “epistemological optimism,” and must be substantially revised if it is to meet the challenges of the modern world. What both sets of commentators have in common is that they see fallibilism as a kind of intellectual virtue. If, to adapt a statement from Peirce, fallibilism’s consequences are antagonistic to Confucianism, then so much the worse for Confucianism. In this paper, I want to look at the issue of fallibilism in the central text of Confucianism, the Analects. At the heart of this text I find a puzzle that complicates both of the above-mentioned views. Confucius’ teachings advocate personal humility, flexibility, and listening to others, on the one hand, while at the same time considering the central teachings themselves to be infallible. In the first half of the paper I look at some textual evidence that shows that Confucius advocates a fallibility of persons but not a full-fledged epistemic one, and in the second half I give an explanation of why this is the case.
Keywords Fallibilism  Confucianism  Confucius  Peirce  Chinese Philosophy
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