Excerpts from: [Review of] The Philosophy of Xunzi: A Reconstruction
China Review International, 16.1, 2009, pp. 107-111 (see first page)
Published by University of Hawai’i Press
In his largely favorable review, Andrew Lambert summarizes my project as follows:
Kurtis Hagen’s book The Philosophy of Xunzi is a contribution to a growing area of Chinese philosophy, one that addresses the question of how to make sense of the classic text of Xunzi. The central issue of Hagen’s work concerns which broad interpretative framework and background assumptions produce the most coherent interpretation of the text’s key concepts. As Hagen himself puts it, he seeks to “directly challenge the interpretations of a number of scholars regarding Xunzi’s fundamental worldview” (p. x).
Hagen intends to show that Xunzi can be understood not as an authoritarian—exceedingly committed to traditional forms of social life and fixed normative standards—but as a pragmatist, someone who understood that the way to organize social life was contingent on the demands of the times. Hagen calls his approach “constructivist” since, as he playfully notes, it seeks to “construct constructive constructs” (p. 32) for the sake of ordering society.
Hagen constructs a picture of the ancient sages as exemplary figures who were aware of how to create social harmony and proceeded to do so within the confines of their times. At the same time, Xunzi emerges as a figure who recognizes both the underlying methods and moral vision of the sages and also the contingent nature of the actual norms, measures, and models they adopted to realize that vision. As society advances and new challenges and needs arise, new or transformed norms, rituals, names, and models are needed to secure such harmony.
Lambert alludes to a debate about whether the Analects of Confucius “is an unreflective and unphilosophical work, with heavy emphasis on the force of custom in social life, or whether it is an insightful exercise in contextual and pragmatic responses to particular situations and needs.” And he concludes, “Hagen’s book brings a similar debate to the Xunzi, and it is an excellent introduction to those schools of thought that view classical Confucianism through a pragmatic lens.”
What I appreciate about Lambert’s review is that it highlights the social relevance of the differences in fundamental worldviews at issue. In other words, rather focus on the dispute between realist and constructivist interpretations, it highlights what is at stake in this dispute.