Unification News for August 1999

The Concept of "Self" in Confucian Thought

D. Klemme
Barrytown, NY
August, 1999

This is derived from a paper presented to Dr. D. Carlson Confucianism class at UTS.

Different cultural experiences have all produced conceptions of self. This fact alone points to the human quest to understand what exactly it is that we are. Each of the conceptions of self thus produced can be seen not as simply different, but as different perspectives of the same reality. Since the human self is by many understood to be more than flesh and electrical impulses, perhaps the diversity of such conceptions also points less to ignorance than to the complexity of the human being.

But underlying the title of this paper is a fundamental and important philosophical question, which for some often takes the misleading form: "Who am I?" The question does not so much aim at a request for a species, or at an answer that provides information about material realities. After all, the answer "a human being", or "a living entity", is very unsatisfying. The question can mean: ‘What am I to do?’ in a time of crisis; or it can bring into question my personal environment, in which I used to exist and which now may have come into question, such as in times of war. In such instances, I am not concerned so much with what I am, literally, but with what I should be. Such a deep soul searching might bring to mind existential "Angst".

In western thought the "problem of self’ might be traced back to Descartes (identity as a thinking substance) and Locke (identity as bound up with memory). These two philosophers together produced on the subject no more than 10 pages, while "contemporary elaboration of their theses fill department libraries". But in the final analysis it may be said that those philosophers were concerned only with a defense of the notion of reason. In any case, there are deeply held convictions of the nature of self that are very different from those we ‘enlightened’ people hold. In some societies the self or one’s identity has little or nothing to do with introspection, but instead is determined by one’s place in the larger context, such as family and society. Next to such different framework, western thinking of self seems self-oriented. But Ames, a well known writer on Confucian thought, writes:

"It is often said that the western conception of self is "individualistic", perhaps excessively so. But insofar as this refers to the obvious, namely the physical discernibly of individual human beings and some rudimentary awareness that "I feel this and you don’t" (and vice versa), it is hard to understand what all the fuzz is about. How could people not be individualistic?"

The Maori of New Zealand, for example, have just a firm grasp of their individuality as any westerner. But their understanding of any action of any individual member is almost completely embedded in one’s collective community. Any individual offense is felt by the whole community of which both the offender and the offended are a part, and the action can not be separated from that context.

Self or No-Self

The notion of self in Confucian thought is very similar to what Ames expresses in above quote, and to the understanding of self in our examples of the Maori. Although it is by westerners often understood that there is no self in Confucian thought, (because in Confucianism one does talk of the concept of "no-self") this concept may be misunderstood when taken into western paradigms of thinking.

But what is really meant by the idea of "no self", is this: "If one had no selfish motives, but only the supreme virtues, there would be no self. … If he serves selflessly, he does not know what service is [does not recognize it as service]. If he knows what service is, he has a self… [to think] only of parents but not of yourself… is what I call no self." (Zoku Kyuo dowa [Kyuo’s Moral discourses continued], 1835)

Hiroshi Minami, another writer on Confucian thought, notes that "[the concept of no-self] …is identical with the spirit of service-above-self, where every spontaneous impulse is rejected as selfishness"

In Confucianism the quest for the human self, the search for what it is to be human in terms of substance or no-substance, in terms of spirit or body, does not exist. The form which that question takes in Confucius’ writings, is one of personality. Personality as such is not seen as inherently existing, but as something that is being formed through upbringing and environment. In that, the human being is seen as a social being. (Some have even used the term: Social animal). Accordingly, every person is born with four beginnings, which do not encapsulate a concept of self as yet, but which together, if put in the western framework of thinking, may be called ‘pre-self’, or ‘potential-self’:

• heart of compassion – leads to Jen

• heart of righteousness – leads to Yi

• heart of propriety – leads to Li

• heart of wisdom – leads to Chih

In this, Jen, Yi, Li and Chih, are the perfection of the virtues that exist in the human heart from the beginning as potentials. A self as such would develop out of these, and develop through practice of the corresponding virtues. Personality, in the Confucian perception, is an achieved state of moral excellence rather than a given human condition. However, such achieved personality, or self, is not to be understood as primarily an individual entity, as would be the tendency in western thinking. As with the Maori, the Confucian concept of self also is deeply embedded within the family and society, and it is only in that context that the self comes to be what it is.

In Confucianism, we find that most of its writings are dealing with this process, namely, to develop the potential into actuality, and if one may speculate on reasons for such an understanding, one has to bear in mind the background amidst which these ideas originated.

Self as a Potential for Selfishness

China, during the 6th century, had been for some time and was then in great political and moral turmoil, and Confucius’ writings must be understood as arising within such circumstances. Confucius, therefore, was not concerned with metaphysical speculation on good and evil, or with fates of the beyond, or with the nature of the human being "in itself". He was concerned primarily with human happiness in the here and now. According to his own testimony, he grew up "without rank and in humble circumstances", which helped him develop a deep concern for the common people. Of aristocrats, he had a very poor opinion. "It is difficult to expect anything from men who stuff themselves with food the whole day, while never using their minds in any way at all. Even Gamblers do something, and to that degree are better than these idlers." Confucius was concerned with conviction, not with rank or titles. With his ideas, he was of course at variance with those held by the nobility. Until then, the word chun tzu referred to a man of good birth. "Such a person was a Gentleman by birth, and no one not born so could become a Gentleman, and no gentleman could ever become less than one, no matter how vile his conduct might be." For Confucius, in contrast, any man was a "gentleman" if his conduct were noble and unselfish. It may have been Confucius’ negative experiences of the nobility, and the rigidity of understanding which clearly divided them from workers, which led to the Confucian understanding of the self as something that has to be developed, rather than something that is inherently given.

However, the matter of developing such a human being into a virtuous person, was not as clear an issue as might seem. Great discussions and arguments were centered on just how one becomes such a person.

For example, in reaction to Ogyo Sorai, the Confucian scholar Ishida Baigan founded the shingaku (mind-discipline) movement. Sorai had challenged the idea of mind discipline as self-contradictory, because "The mind is without form. It cannot be controlled by itself…" Baigan disagreed, and founded his school. For others, such as Kumazawa Banzan, the training ground for the self was external, but must be found in the public life, rather than in any school.

Another argument that emerged was that of selfishness. Does Bushido, the way of the warrior formed by the Confucian values of loyalty and submission to one’s Lord, actually killed a sense of individual self? On one hand, Inatomi Eijiro for example blames the lack of a clear sense of individual self among the Japanese on the long-reigning feudal system. In that tradition, "Whenever one is taken into service to a Lord, he should serve the Lord without any consideration of his own self. Even if one … is ordered to commit harakiri, one should accept it." In such a framework, there of course exists a self, but only an egoistic (ga) one. On the other hand, some would argue that "the samurai obviously exhibited the kind of self-respect, self assertion, and independence that formed the core of modern individualism. The matter does not seem decided even in modern times.

The Confucian sense of self is, as indicated, very different from that of western understanding of the same issue. An interesting conversation, in which these two frameworks met each other, took place in 1957 between Hisamatsu Shinichi, a well known Zen Teacher, and Paul Tillich, the western theologian:

Hisamatsu: The self is the true Formless Self only when it awakens to itself… it is always at once "one’s own" and "not one’s own" … the Formless Self includes, in so far as it is Self, Self--awareness. But by this formless Self (or Self-awareness) I mean the "Formless-Myself", which … expresses—or presents—Itself in its activities… The True Awakening—or Formless Self—in Itself has neither a beginning, an ending, a special place, nor a special time.

Tillich: Then it cannot happen to a human being.

Hisamatsu: … with this Self-awakening… one is no longer an "ordinary" human being.

Tillich (later): Even so, you can’t eliminate the "my" … Is it that there is no centered self, no self-related self, which would be a hindrance?

DeMartino (Translator for Hisamatsu): The barrier is created by the reflectively self-conscious ego—or "I"— which discriminates itself from "not-itself"--or "not-I". Muge ‘no hindrance’ [is] the overcoming of this barrier…

Tillich: By the removal of individuality?

DeMartino: No, by the fulfillment of individuality.

Tillich: What is the difference…?

At the end, Hisamatsu’s translator intimates that the conversation reached an impasse because the theologian is pursuing an analytic approach, while the Zen teacher is attempting to express something ungraspable by this approach.


In our task of making explicit the Confucian concept of Self, we then must, it seems, shed the western conception of the same, and see the issue under a different paradigm. As indicated above, the issue here is no longer one of finding an inherent essence, but one of finding an understanding for true becoming. But the human condition at birth in Confucianism is not to be confused with that of being a tabula rasa, upon which our experiences write what will become our personality. The human nature already seems predisposed toward the becoming of Jen, in that we begin with a heart that is already aimed at it by its nature. The same holds true for the other three virtues Yi, Li, and Chih. The human adult self, in Confucianism, has above been defined as an ‘achieved state of moral excellence rather than a given human condition’, and there are several implications to such an understanding. First, strictly speaking, one may speak of a human being in Confucianism only as such with regard to the human potential to become an human being. In other words, at birth, being human is no different from being an animal. The true human condition is achieved in life, if indeed it is being achieved, through the practice of the virtues. While these virtues are almost impossible to be achieved in anyone’s lifetime, being human refers to making the effort of achieving them. To be on the way, to follow the Tao toward perfection, is the as close to perfection one is likely to come. In this, the concept of ‘self’ in Confucianism is closely linked with all those areas that the virtues stand for. To become a person of Jen, one aims to become a person of love. On the exact meaning of Jen extensive writing has been done, to bring this Confucian concept closer to the western mind by relating it to the western concept of "Agape". A person of Jen is a compassionate human being, for whom rules and regulations are a means to an end, and not an end in itself. But such a person does not act arbitrarily. The "superior" person also follows the virtue of Yi, which relates to righteousness. Further, he follows the rules and laws of the nation he lives in, and respects its customs. In that, he follows the virtue of Li. Finally, a true human being has developed his heart of wisdom. That is, he follows Chih, which refers to a wisdom that has been developed through living a life according to the other virtues. In fact, although we may speak of the four virtues, this is a distinction only for practical purposes of intellectual understanding. For the true man, those four virtues are interrelated, and are impossible without any one of them. In this, they are one.

In Confucianism then, the self can never be static. If one stops to develop the virtues in one’s living, one has already lost them all. To be human means to develop and to keep pursuing the virtues. In the sage, this has ceased to be a conscious effort or decision. The dynamic has been integrated into the nature of the self, and has become the self. It has become an unconscious way of being.


In our attempt to make explicit a concept of self in Confucian understanding, we have first shown how our western understanding of the issue differs from that of other cultures. We have hinted that the commonly understood selfishness inherent in western understanding may in fact be no different from that of other cultures, including understandings of the Chinese and the Japanese. Following, we tried to clarify somewhat a possible misunderstanding of the concept of "no-Self" in Confucianism, and went from there to explain the Confucian concept of self as a social construct. This construct does not exist at birth, but is being developed to the degree by which one lives according to the five Confucian virtues. We have briefly shown that the issue of self in Confucianism takes the form of understanding how one is to achieve these virtues, and have hinted at some of the discussion that is going on in that regard. Further, a dialogue between Tillich and Hisamatsu showed the differences of approach. Finally, in what must be our own interpretation, we have tried to define the Confucian self as a dynamic that aims at the perfection of the virtues.

The concept of self in Confucianism is a topic that is relatively undeveloped. Whether this is because of difficulties in approach, complexity of the issue itself, or because of the still existing gap between western and eastern philosophical thinking; it seem to us that the question of "who am I" is an important one. This short paper does not even begin to deal with the issues involved.

But, in our humble opinion, the "superior man" would learn from anything.


"Self as Person in Asian Theory and Practice", edited by Roger T. Ames, 1994, State University of New York Press, 1994

"Studies in Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Literature", A.C. Graham, State University of New York Press, 1990

"Studies in ChineseThought", Arthur F. Wright, University of Chicago Press, 1953

"The Chinese Mind", Gung Hsieng Wang, Asia Press, 1946

"Chines Thought from Confucius to Mao Tse-tung", Herrlee G. Creel, University of Chicago Press, 1953

"Neo-Confucian Orthodoxy and the Learning of the Mind-and-Heart", Wm. Theodore de Bary, Columbia University Press, 1981

"Confucianism and Christianity", A Comparative Study of Jen and Agape, Xinzhong Yao, Sussex Academic Press, 1996, 1997

 Download entire page and pages related to it in ZIP format
Table of Contents
Tparents Home