chapter  12
Filial piety as respect for tradition
ByA. T. NUYEN
Pages 12

The notion of filial piety in Chinese philosophy has received a great deal of attention recently. To a large extent, this is due to the current interest in “family studies.”1 Within philosophy, there is a growing literature on duties and obligations in the context of family relationships, and some philosophers have turned to Chinese philosophy, Confucianism in particular, for insights.2 With few exceptions, commentators have been largely critical of the idea of filial piety, so much so that one wonders if the idea still has any relevance to twenty-first-century morality. However, as usually is the case with most concepts and ideas in ancient Chinese philosophy, it is all a matter of interpretation. Given the admittedly common reading, critics of filial piety certainly have a case. But as Heiner Roetz has pointed out, the “words of the ancients are for the most part anything but clear, often timid, and always subject to interpretation.”3 Critics would no doubt argue that while this may be so with many concepts, the pronouncements on filial piety are clear enough, and clearly an indictment of that idea. Supposing the critics are right, the question is still whether there can be some understanding of the concept that, on the one hand, stays close to what the ancient Chinese thinkers had in mind and, on the other, has some relevance for contemporary morality. The aim of this chapter is to offer a reading of filial piety that meets this requirement. It is not as much an interpretation of “the words of the ancients” on filial piety as a suggestion concerning one possible way in which the notion might be understood and appropriated. More specifically, I suggest that we understand filial piety as respect for tradition, where tradition is understood in the Gadamerean sense.