The Philosophy of Xunzi: A Reconstruction
by Kurtis Hagen
According to one popular interpretation, Xunzi claims that the sages of old “gave birth” to a language that truly and uniquely describes the world and our roles and reciprocal obligations in it. According to this view, the ritual patterns embodied by the sages are uniquely appropriate, and universally and eternally so. Moral categories expressed in language are real, and alternative interpretations are necessarily false and thus pernicious. There is no room for discussion, unorthodox doctrines are to be silenced, and the crooked are to be pressed straight in conformity with the true standard.
In explicit contrast to this view, The Philosophy of Xunzi makes the case for a more empowering interpretation of Xunzi’s philosophy. Rather presuming a preordained “right answer,” it is the role of people, especially exemplary people and sages, to organize the world intelligently. We do this through a continual process of apply patterns to the world, revising, improving, and adapting to new circumstances. This patterning is not arbitrary, for it must be constructive, but neither is it fully determined by the fundamental nature of things.
Praise for The Philosophy of Xunzi:
A formidable challenge to conventional interpretations of the philosopher Xunzi (my own included). Hagen’s main thesis is that the most prominent Western scholars have read Xunzi as a realist who conceives of a universe with a fixed or determinate structure. Hagen endeavors to show that such heavy metaphysical commitments are not necessary—and indeed obscure Xunzi’s vision. Although many of his claims may prove controversial, Hagen always has genuine textual grounds for his interpretations.
—Paul R. Goldin, Author of Rituals of the Way
This is a superb book and a decisive work in Xunzi studies. Arguing with contemporary Chinese and Japanese as well as English-language commentators, Hagen makes a very powerful case for interpreting Xunzi as a “constructionist,” not a “realist,” with regards to classification, language, and normative rituals. With careful, detailed discussions and translations, Hagen rescues Xunzi from appreciative but misleading interpretations.
—Robert C. Nevelle, Author of The Tao and the Daimon
In Kurtis Hagen’s bold “reconstructivist” reading of Xunzi, he takes on the burgeoning field of Xunzi scholarship… His careful and consistent arguments offer us his sustained effort to understand this seminal Chinese philosopher by locating his ideas within their own interpretive context. A careful perusal of this rigorously argued work will serve as a primer for reading Chinese philosophy broadly by sensitizing the reader to many of the ambient, persistent assumptions that have made the Chinese philosophical narrative so different from our own.
—Roger T. Ames, Co-translator of The Analects of Confucius
Andrew Lambert’s positive review (in China Review International)
Eric Hutton’s critical review and my response (in Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy)