I keep going back and forth on this issue. When I started working on the Analects, I was of the view that one should try to read the text independently of the commentarial tradition, so as not to be poisoned by the biases, agendas, etc., of the authors of the various commentaries. We could, I tended to believe, come closest to “pure” interpretation by simply ignoring the commentaries. Years later, I came to think differently about the commentaries. Our readings of the classical texts are inevitably influenced by our teachers, as well as the texts and editions we have read (especially those of us who first encountered Chinese thought in English before understanding Chinese). Like it or not, I came to believe, we are influenced in our readings by the commentarial tradition, and thus we need to understand the commentaries, in order to discover where our assumptions about the classical texts come from, as well as the strength or weakness of the arguments for them. Reading the Zhu Xi commentary on the Analects in particular opened my eyes to this necessity.
Now, after even more years, I find my attitude to the commentaries on the Analects taking another turn in a different direction. My current view is something like this: the commentaries are often philosophically interesting in their own right, but they are not very useful for helping clear up difficulties in the Analects or in explaining the roots of many of the assumptions we bring to the text. Looking to Zhu Xi to find the roots of a “psychological” reading of certain concepts in the Analects, for example, is useful in that it helps explain Zhu Xi’s own philosophical agenda, but it is of limited use in discovering whether or not such a reading is justified. Certainly looking to Zhu Xi’s arguments themselves can tell us whether his reasons for holding his views were good ones, but even if we discover that they were not, we cannot from this show that there are no good reasons for holding his views, or that his view of the Analects in general is not the “right” reading of it, in terms of understanding what views the authors of the Analects actually held and took themselves to be presenting.
In many ways, looking to the vast commentarial literature on the Analects muddies the water, and one can all-too-easily get caught up in the commentaries and differences or arguments between the various philosophers and scholars involved. Often the commentaries on the Analects and other classical texts were not really about these texts at all, but were primarily tools in debates between the authors and other opposing thinkers of their time. To look to these commentaries as ways of understanding the Analects and classical texts, then, is like looking to Aquinas to understand Aristotle, or to Plotinus to understand Plato. Even though there was clearly influence, the concerns were different, and the philosophical views were different. And, most importantly, the later philosophers were not explicitly engaged in the project of interpreting the earlier philosophers, but rather in advancing their own positions.
“Commentary” then can be misleading in China. Everyone took themselves to be following the model of Confucius, 述而不作, because this was orthodox–but within the guise of Confucianism the authors of the commentaries were primarily developing their own views.
Thus, I think, interpreters of the classical texts have got to be careful in using the commentaries. Getting absorbed in the commentaries, we can quickly get away from the original text and swept up into the issues the commentators were concerned with. Then we find ourselves, as they did, not working on the Analects or other classical texts at all, but engaged in internal debates which used the classical texts as tools for expressing new views.