The official version of the full exchange between Hutton and myself, published in Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy, is here, but is not freely accessible.
However, Hutton’s full review can be read here. Below is my original response to his review, followed by a link to his reply. Finally, I’ve added here my critical summary of his reply.
A Response to Eric Hutton’s Review
by Kurtis Hagen
Published in Dao: Journal of Comparative Philosophy (2007) 6:441–443.
I would first like to thank Eric Hutton for his careful review, and the editors of Dao for offering me this opportunity to respond. As a general strategy, Hutton weighs the persuasiveness of my coherence argument for a constructivist interpretation of Xunzi against a hypothetical coherence argument for a realist interpretation, and he finds the hypothetical argument more convincing. I am not sure I find that very convincing. It is perhaps too much to really expect to convince “someone inclined to a kind of ‘realist’ interpretation of Xunzi” to change his view, especially by providing a coherence argument. If my book did not convince, I can hardly hope this short response to do so. However, I can at least try to provide enough details to explain why I think his critique is off the mark.
Hutton writes, “The ‘realist’ view comprises a variety of elements, but the two most important ones for Hagen are apparently the claims that Xunzi believes (1) there is a single correct standard for morality and (2) this standard is not man-made, but rather exists independently of humans” (emphasis added). However, Hutton claims, some of those I have categorized as realist interpreters actually would deny claim (2); they hold that although there is a single correct standard-for-morality (Dao), it is in fact man-made. Specifically, Hutton cites the fact that P. J. Ivanhoe and T. C. Kline “talk of the sages as ‘creating’ the Way or ‘concluding’ the process of its ‘evolution’.” Hutton concludes that “neither Ivanhoe nor Kline think of it as completely independent of human beings.” However, this simply conflates the standard itself with the implementation of that standard.
Consider a Platonic way of looking at this. Plato would admit, of course, that people institute government institutions—how could he deny that? However, on Plato’s view, there is an independent, antecedently existing, Form of Justice, to which the institution we “create” ought to conform. Now, Plato, of course, is a realist par excellence. However, Ivanhoe’s interpretation seems to be analogous to Plato’s. The quotation that Hutton supplies confirms rather than undermines this conclusion. Here is the telling part of Ivanhoe’s statement again: “[Xunzi] clearly believed that the sages had brought the process to a successful conclusion and that the Confucian Way provided the unique solution which would be valid for all times.” The sages, on this view, have in effect realized the Form of the Dao in the world. There is, and always has been, but one correct standard—the “unique solution,” and people did not create that. So, Ivanhoe does seem to accept thesis (2), properly understood (similar remarks could be made about Kline’s interpretation).
The issue is not whether people have some role that could be, in some very limited sense, described as “creative.” It is whether we are dealing with a “one right answer model” or a “many good answers model,” a “discovery model” or an “invention model.” The interpreters that I challenged have adopted a one-right-answer/discovery model, for this is the logic of realism.
As for his critique of my “negative project,” Hutton selects, understandably, the most seemingly realist passage: “In the world there are not two daos; sages are not of two minds.” Hutton says that I give no reason for reading it in connection with the two passages that I do. However, the reason should be clear. All three passages are about the problem of “having two.” The two passages are very clear that the problem is practical: having two leads to disorder. What does the sentence immediately preceding the passage in question say? “If in doubt about two, there will be confusion.” It is about the same thing. So, while by itself the passage may seem to suggest that there is only one dao, in context, and in light of clearly similar passages, it seems to be not about what metaphysically is the case, but rather about how one should practically proceed. This is just what we would expect from a Confucian thinker. Hutton is looking for “some further argument,” but the further argument is the rest of the book. The parts have to support the whole, but in the end it is the whole that vindicates the parts.
As for the passage, “If true kings were to arise, they would certainly revitalize old names and zuo new ones,” WANG Xianqian’s conservative interpretation is certainly interesting. However, zuo does typically mean something like “innovate, create, make,” so the idea that it here means something more like “change back” needs some justification. Knoblock, Watson, and even Hutton himself translate the passage in question in much the same way as I do. So does Michael Puett, even as he tries to read Xunzi as a realist (The Ambivalence of Creation: Debates Concerning Innovation and Artifice in Early China. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001, p. 71–72). Thus, the charge that I “simply assume[d] a congenial reading” seems unfair. Indeed, it seems odd that Xunzi would use a character in an unusual way in order to express strict conservatism in the use of terms. However, Hutton’s point is not that Wang’s reading is a good one. It is merely that a well-regarded interpreter has given a different reading of that passage, and he apparently thinks I should have mentioned all such readings for all the passages that I cite. I am not sure that is a reasonable expectation.
In addition, Hutton exaggerates the degree to which I take philosophical plausibility to be an interpretive criterion. I have tried to argue that the constructivist interpretation is at least as good on a passage-by-passage basis, and better from a holistic perspective, than the realist interpretation. It is on top of this that considerations of philosophical merit come into play. Further, while I do think there is much to recommend constructivism philosophically, I consider myself, at least in part, a Confucian constructivist. This is relevant to my methodology, for moving the Confucian project forward by interpreting the past is a longstanding Confucian method, beginning with Confucius himself. In Analects 7.1, Confucius claimed to be a transmitter and not an innovator (zuo)—note that this is the same character discussed above—while at the same time he was constructing a philosophy of considerable novelty. It is by his own standard of “rekindling the past with an understanding of the present” (Analects 2.11) that he qualifies as a teacher. ZHU Xi 朱熹 and all other significant Confucians also produced innovative interpretations of earlier Confucians. That is how Confucianism evolves—and this process itself suggests that presuppositions of constructivism are implicit in Confucian thinking.
Hutton concludes, “[The Philosophy of Xunzi] will no doubt be a productive spur for studies of Xunzi.” I hope he is right; that was my stated objective (11, 14). However, there may be additional contemporary political relevance to my arguments. If there is something to the notion that realism has not been nearly as strong an assumption in Chinese thought as it has been in the West, this may shed light on, for example, the Confucian challenge to Western conceptions of human rights.
Finally, in the spirit of being constructive, I will close by offering some suggestions for compromise, inspired in part by Hutton’s discussion of “specificationist reasoning” in his impressive article, “Moral Reasoning in Aristotle and Xunzi” (Journal of Chinese Philosophy 29.3: 355–384). Hutton explains, “specificationist reasoning can…be under- stood as a process whereby one comes to discover some objective truth about how to behave…[one] discovers an answer” (360). Up to a point, I can accept this. Constructivism does not deny that there are regularities out there, and so discovery (in some sense) is not excluded. Rather, discovery and invention are mutually influencing. Further, there is a vague and general level at which one may reasonably say there is “only one way,” but on a more specific level there are many possible specifications of it. For example, everyone agrees that we ought to be “fair,” but there may be multiple, more or less equally defensible, specifications of what fairness entails. I do accept that Xunzi could be read as offering vague, but necessary, conditions for human flourishing. Xunzi believes that the “only way” for society to flourish is for there to be norms of ritual propriety of some kind—that is reasonable, and it does not commit him to a realist worldview in which everything has precisely defined roles. At the same time, Xunzi does insist that everyone should follow a particular, more precisely defined course. I have never said that Xunzi advocates pluralism but only that his worldview allows room for it. His reasons for insisting on uniformity are practical (if misguided), not metaphysical. Thus, we can embrace his philosophy, without embracing his politics.
Hutton’s full reply to my response is here.
Critical Summary of Hutton’s Reply
The following is a summary of Hutton’s reply with my further responses (appearing here for the first time). In his reply to my response, Hutton focuses on the following three issues:
1. My analysis of “There are not two Ways for the world.”
2. My omission of Wang Xianqian’s reading of “If true kings were to arise, they would certainly revitalize old names and create (zuo) new ones.”
3. And my attempt at compromise.
I. The “No Two Ways” Passage
Regarding the first issue, Hutton writes:
My criticism, though, was that his argument requires not merely that these other passages are relevant, but moreover that they are the most—and perhaps only—relevant ones for understanding the line, if he wants to argue against others on grounds of overall coherence not just that the line can be read as not asserting that there is only one Way, but that it should be read so. It is this stronger claim for which Hagen does not argue, I say. Until he explains why passages such as 天下有二 (and other examples) are irrelevant or far less relevant to understanding 天下無二道 than the ones he cites, he will not have shown why 天下無二道 should not be taken as his opponents have done, but only that it might not be taken thus.
It is my sincere hope that I have offered a corrective that, when considered together with arguments from the other side, will facilitate the working out of a still more adequate account. (p. xi)I hope, humbly, that I have at least helped create a space, a not yet clearly articulated domain between the views advocated and those criticized, wherein a more adequate account may continue to be worked out. (p. xiv)
II. On Not Citing Wang Xianqian
Hutton’s second point is as follows:
[O]n Wang Xianqian’s reading of 有作於新名: my point is not that Hagen should have discussed all possible alternative construals of all passages he cites, which would indeed be unreasonable to demand. Instead, my point is that this line is key evidence for Hagen, and I submit that it is not unreasonable to expect that one consider alternative readings by major commentators for passages on which one relies heavily, particularly when one argues that others have overlooked alternative construals (as with 天下無二道) and claims greater coherence for one reading of the text over others. Hagen notes that I myself translated it as he does, but a translation in a textbook is not a scholarly argument, and since my translation was published, I have become less sure that my rendering was correct—there may be more to Wang’s view than Hagen allows.
I’ll admit this: My treatment would have been more complete if I had addressed Wang’s interpretation. But I still find Hutton’s criticism pretty weak. Hutton is not even willing to argue that Wang’s interpretation was a good one, only that he now finds it better than he had at the time he himself dismissed it in formulating his own translation. So, according to Hutton, even though no major English translation at the time, including his own, followed this interpretation (for what seems good reasons, as I mentioned in my response), I should have addressed it.
III. Did I Give the Game Away?
Hutton’s final point addresses my attempt at a compromise, in which I suggested that “there is a vague and general level at which one may reasonably say there is ‘only one way,’ but on a more specific level there are many possible specifications of it.” Hutton seized the opportunity to claim that this is a “big concession to the ‘realist’ position.” He believes that for me to make this “concession” is “is to grant the main idea of ‘one right answer’ that forms half of the realist’ view.”
Well, yes and no. It acknowledges that there is a sense in which, at “a vague and general level,” one may reasonably speak of “one right answer.” But it also insists that there is a sense in which there is not “one right answer.” Hutton points out that, in The Philosophy of Xunzi, I had written:
“[W]hile it is sensible to speak of general (‘weak’) and enduring (more or less fixed, as far as we can see) principles, such principles would not necessarily have the privilege of being the only possible set of workable principles, nor would there be only one legitimate way in which they could be conceived” (23).
It doesn’t seem to me that my position has changed very much from the view expressed there. But here is the key issue. According to Hutton:
[A]ny “pluralism” permitted by such a view is weak at best, since ultimately it justifies different moral practices by a single standard (a point easily accommodated by “realism”), rather than by multiple standards not further reducible to one principle.
This is where I disagree. On my reading, Xunzi suggests that having some working set of norms of ritual propriety are critical to the survival of a society. In this limited sense, “There is only one way.” But that leaves a lot of room for difference. This is hardly an insignificant, “weak at best,” form of pluralism. As an analogy, there is only one way, in a very general sense, to get to the North Pole. You must head north. Now, you may go different directions for a time, but ultimately you must head north. It is the only way. Clearly, that does little to undermine pluralism with respect to paths to the North Pole.
And further, Hutton is wrong to say that my acknowledgement “justifies different moral practices by a single standard.” Not at all. Even if having norms of ritual propriety of some kind is crucial for social flourishing, it is not the only consideration.
So, my proposed compromise does little to limit the pluralism implied by Confucian constructivism. After all, I have always stressed that constructive constructs are conditioned by the consequences they engender, and thus are not mere conventions. It is the realist that faces the more serious problem. For the realist, if there is more than one way at any level, then the way was not really real, and “poof” the realist spell is broken. For realism implies metaphysically grounded perfection (see pp. 19-20, 39, and 103).
Note: Unless otherwise indicted, references are to The Philosophy of Xunzi: A Reconstruction.