A/P Tan’s monograph, Confucian Democracy, sets out to reconstruct a philosophical framework for Confucian democracy, through a comparison of the works of the American Pragmatist, John Dewey, who was arguably the most influential Western philosopher during the first half of the twentieth century, and pre-Qin Confucian texts. The reconstruction is based on detailed examination of key concepts found in the two traditions, such as individual, community, equality and liberty, in the context of different ways of pursuing ethical and political order. Some questions answered in the reconstructive process include: how could we conceive of individuals as social individuals without sacrificing individuality to the collective; how do we create and sustain harmonious communities that are not stifling internally and do not adopt “us-them” exclusionary mentality that is hostile to other groups; what is the relationship between ethics and politics; how do we move from the Confucian concern for government for the people to government by the people; how is it possible to respect authority and still be free?
Since completing the work on Confucian Democracy, A/P Tan has continued to elaborate, in journal articles and book chapters, on questions which were raised but could not be explored in detail in the book, such as how a Confucian civil society is possible and how it works; how we might purge Confucianism of its historical sexism for a more democratic understanding of gender within Confucian context while challenging some Western formulations of gender equality; whether there is room for creativity in Confucianism; how rituals as understood in Confucian ethics might improve democratic living; what are the differences between law and rituals and what are their relative merits as tools of government; why modern Confucians should desire democracy or advocates of democracy in East Asia should accommodate Confucianism.
A/P Tan's Deweyan reconstruction of Confucian democracy has led her into an exploration of the historical encounter between China and Pragmatist philosophy beginning with John Dewey’s visit to China between 1919 and 1921, of how cultural differences lead to a Chinese Pragmatism that differs from its American cousin even though they share certain commonalities. She is currently working on a monograph that will explore the role of Pragmatism in China’s quest for democracy.
The Confucian democracy project taps into a wider field of questions about the relationship between democracy and culture, including questions about multiculturalism and cultural identity in politics, and whether the primacy of culture in some cases justifies antidemocratic political outcomes. A/P Tan’s recent joint project with A/P John Whalen-Bridge from the Department of English Language and Literature is an international workshop on “Democracy as Art, Belief, and Culture.” An edited volume is in the works that will examine the various connections between democracy and culture, exploring the conceptual and practical problems of conceiving of democracy as not merely a political system, but a culture, a whole way of life.
Confucian Democracy: A Deweyan Reconstruction. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.
"China's Pragmatist Experiment in Democracy." In The Range of Pragmatism and the Limits of Philosophy, ed. Richard Shusterman.Oxford:Blackwells, 2004.
Challenging Citizenship: Group Membership and Cultural Identity in a Global Age,(Ed). Aldershot, Hants, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005.