Edited by T. C. Kline III and Philip J. Ivanhoe. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000)
Reviewed by Kurtis Hagen
Philosophy East and West 51: 3 (July 2001) 434-440.
This collection has much to recommend it. It brings together several seminal papers on Xunzi by established and distinguished scholars of Chinese philosophy, such as Antonio S. Cua, D. C. Lau, David S. Nivison, and Henry Rosemont, Jr.. It also includes contributions from relative newcomers, having focused their dissertations on Xunzi’s philosophy, namely T. C. Kline III and Eric Hutton. While most of the papers were previously published, some appear in print for the first time in this volume. There is also a succinct introduction, name and subject indexes, and a targeted bibliography which may serve as a reading list for those interested in supplementing their study of Xunzi. Another nicety is that references to passages in the Xunzi in older articles have been updated to include John Knoblock’s translation as well as A Concordance to the Xunzi, and romanizations have been standardized to pinyin.
For the most part, the title “Virtue, Nature, and Moral Agency in the Xunzi” accurately represents the most prominent subject matter of the book. However, by “nature” what is meant is apparently “human nature,” if that is an adequate translation for the concept Xunzi designates with the character xing 性. Xunzi’s view of tian 天 (the propensities of nature, the heavens) is not prominently discussed. Most of the essays, chapters four through eleven (the final chapter), deal extensively if not primarily with understanding Xunzi’s conception of human nature. Chapters five through seven are tied even closer together under the theme of moral agency (more on their connection below). Virtue is the topic of chapter three and plays a role in chapters four and seven.
Although the first two chapters seem not to fall neatly within these categories, Henry Rosemont Jr.’s contribution, “State and Society in the Xunzi: A Philosophical Commentary,” seems an appropriate choice for the lead article of this collection. A sweeping polemic in defense of Xunzi’s political philosophy, this seminal essay demonstrates the philosophical strength and potential relevance of Xunzi’s thought. Specifically, Rosemont argues that Xunzi’s political system is no less “reasonable” than democracy, and that while Xunzi advocates what Karl Popper would call a “closed society,” Xunzi’s system is defensible against Popper’s critique of a such societies.
The second essay, “Ethical Uses of the Past in Early Confucianism: The Case of Xunzi” is authored by Antonio S. Cua, who has been a consistent contributor to the understanding of Xunzi’s philosophy for more than twenty years. A collection of articles on Xunzi would be incomplete without Cua’s work being represented. However, given the themes of the book, it is not entirely clear why this particular paper was selected. While Cua has written on both human nature and virtue in the Xunzi, this paper only tangentially addresses the theme of virtue. Nevertheless, it exemplifies the kind of careful scholarship characteristic of Cua’s work, and there is something to be said for such a collection of articles to exhibit breath as well as focus. In the paper, Cua analyzes Xunzi’s appeal to history in terms of its “pedagogical function,” “rhetorical function,” “elucidative function,” and “evaluative function.”
In chapter three, “Virtues in Xunzi’s Thought,” Jonathan W. Schofer offer’s a lucid depiction of Xunzi’s moral theory as a kind of virtue theory, despite the lack of any systematic analysis on Xunzi’s part of a specific set of virtues. He then suggests that, given Xunzi’s theory and goals, the omission of any analysis of specific virtues may have been deliberate.
The last eight chapters deal extensively with the issue of human nature. Chapter four, “Xunzi: Morality as Psychological Constraint” by Joel J. Kupperman, compares Xunzi’s and Mencius’ conceptions of human nature. Kupperman argues that, unlike Mencius, Xunzi does not really have a “view of human nature” in the sense of humans having any particular fixed characteristics. While the topic of human nature in the Xunzi has received considerable attention (as the following seven chapters attest), Kupperman’s analysis is fresh and insightful, and he employs nuanced comparisons with western thinkers with skill and clarity.
The following three chapters form a linked discussion addressing the sub-theme of human agency. In Chapter five, “Mengzi and Xunzi: Two Views of Human Agency,” Bryan W. Van Norden discusses the differences between Mengzi’s and Xunzi’s view of human nature (xing), taking reflections on the work of A. C. Graham as his starting point. He argues that for Mengzi “humans must do that which they believe will obtain for them what they most desire” (p. 116), and that in addition to other desires “humans intrinsically have ‘moral desires’.” (p. 114) So one becomes moral when one’s greater desires (e.g. the “desire to feel worthy, to be esteemed, to lead lives which have moral value” (p. 114)) overcome their petty desires. He quotes Mencius 6A15: “Those who follow the greater part of themselves become great humans. Those who follow the lesser part of themselves become petty humans.” (p. 114-5) Xunzi’s position, on the other hand, is thought to be importantly different in that Xunzi does not believe that people necessarily do what they most desire, but rather they may conform to behavior which they “approve” (ke 可). Thus, Van Norden takes the distinction between desire and approval to be instrumental in understanding the difference between Mengzi and Xunzi.
In the next chapter, “Xunzi on Moral Motivation,” originally published in a collection dedicated to David Nivison, David B. Wong responds to Van Norden. Wong neutralizes Van Norden’s distinction between desire and approval by examine a strong and a weak sense in which approval might override desire. “In the strong sense, approval can override desire even when it has no relation at all to what will satisfy over the long term.” (p. 140) Wong argues that this was not Xunzi’s position. The weak sense of approval amounts to the mind overruling immediate desires on the basis of considered judgements about what is in one’s long term interests, and thus is not so different from desire. On this view, Wong reasons, “there cannot be as dramatic a contrast between Xunzi’s and Mencius’s views of agency as Van Norden claims there is.” (p. 141)
In chapter seven, “Moral Agency and Motivation in the Xunzi,” T. C. Kline III discusses both Van Norden’s and Wong’s positions, as well as Nivison’s response to Wong. He adds a third choice to Wong’s “strong” or “weak” dichotomy, suggesting that Wong’s solution to the problem of how the first sages were able to cultivate themselves would still hold under a virtue model. Kline also points out that, for Xunzi, approval is related not only to our desires, but also to our “cognitive capacities.” He then echos Nivison’s suggestion that the achievement of the sages are best thought of as having accumulated over a long period of time, rather than as the product of a few exceptional people. At the end of the day, most of Wong’s analysis still stands, but it is best understood with the refinements suggested by Kline.
David Nivison’s short but brilliant contribution, “Xunzi and Zhuangzi,” portrays Xunzi as not only thoroughly understanding Zhuangzi, but as taking (Nivison’s revised version of) Zhuangzi’s philosophy to its logical conclusion. Zhuangzi recognizes death as a part of the natural process. But, one step further is to recognizes grieving as the natural and appropriate response. This account turns on its head the view that Daoism’s rejection of the anthropocentrism of Confucianism makes Daoism the more inclusive of the two. On the contrary, Confucianism is broader by virtue of its inclusion of social forms. Looking at it from this angle, Nivison perceives a basis for the universalism he sees in Xunzi’s thought.
There is a problem, however, with the analysis. It may be the case that to follow through on Zhuangzi’s thought one more step is to bring it closer to Confucianism, but Xunzi does not ground his moral philosophy in this way. Although he does say “the sacrificial rites originate in the emotions of remembrance and longing” (p. 184), their origin in natural emotional responses cannot justify these rites since for the most part following our emotions, Xunzi thinks, will lead us to ruin. The rites of mourning are justified, on the contrary, by their social consequences. Further, though they may be said to “originate” in emotions, the form they are given is a result of conscious activity (wei 偽). They are designed to be felicitous. And, while they are intelligently constructed such that we will ultimately find them satisfying, they need not be considered inevitable or “universal.” (See p. 185) Joel J. Kupperman’s paper may be useful for thinking through this issue (see esp. pp. 98-99), though I don’t mean to attribute my view just stated to him.
D. C. Lau’s contribution, “Theories of Human Nature in Mencius and Xunzi,” originally published in 1953, is by far the oldest of the collection. Lau discusses and then breaks from the traditional understanding of the difference between Mencius’ and Xunzi’s theory of human nature, and sets the tone for the discussions of Xunzi’s conception of human nature and its role is his moral theory found in many of the other essays in the volume, and should probably be read before them.
Chapter ten, “Does Xunzi Have a Consistent Theory of Human Nature?” by Eric Hutton, is a well argued essay which responds to Donald Munro’s comment, “Had developing a theory of human nature been his interest, I doubt that Xunzi would have left it in such a mess.” Hutton examines the passages Munro finds inconsistent, along with other relevant passages, and develops a theory which would be consistent with all of the passages.
Part of the argument concerns the issue of whether being “fond of yi 義” means to be fond of acting morally, or being fond of being the beneficiary of someone else’s moral behavior. Hutton finds that by taking it in the latter sense the text can be rendered consistent. However, Hutton’s valent efforts notwithstanding, it seems that the former interpretation makes the best sense of the part of a passage under consideration which reads: “When yi defeats profit, it is an ordered age. When profit overcomes yi, then it is a disordered age.” (p. 224) The most straightforward reading of the passage is that when a people’s desire for profit overcomes their fondness for acting morally, their narrowly selfish and shortsighted actions lead to chaos — a common refrain in the Xunzi. One way to maintain the consistency which Hutton admirably seeks, while preserving the most natural reading of the passage is to consider that being fond of yi might not accentuate agency. It might mean, rather, to be fond of circumstances characterized by yi. Although, to give Hutton his due, in a person lacking in moral development fondness for such circumstances may only be discernable in reactions to the treatment they receive.
The final chapter, “Human Nature and Moral Understanding in the Xunzi,” by Philip J. Ivanhoe, is a revised version of a paper published previously under the same title. The most interesting part of this essay is Ivanhoe’s use of the difference between the views of language empiricists and those of language innatists to clarify a difference between Mengzi and Xunzi. However, since this paper was conceived as an effort to provide a kind of overview of the theories of moral understanding in Mencius and Xunzi, argumentation for positions stated are often lacking. In a footnote we are told that his arguments are to be found elsewhere. (p. 246 n. 1) Although the broad outline of Ivanhoe’s paper is not out of step with the other papers, when positions are taken which are at odds with views carefully argued for in preceding chapters, the lack of argument is disappointing. For example, it seems too strong to say that on Xunzi’s view “we are led exclusively by our physical desires,” (p. 244) and that “we can’t recognize the moral dimensions of even paradigmatic actions or situations.” This is especially unsatisfying when one has just read a more nuanced position in the preceding chapter (see pp. 224-230). Also, his position that the sages were “extremely gifted” (p. 238) seems to contradict Xunzi’s claim that anyone could become a sage. A sage is a product of wei (conscious activity) and effort, not xing (original human nature).
Finally, I would like to highlight a theme which crops up in several of the articles, which I think should be questioned. T. C. Kline III writes, “It [ritual] embodies not just a set of patterns, but the unique and most fully harmonious patterns of activity.” (p. 166, emphasis his) This seems to suggest that the precise rituals of the sages are thought to be the unique solution to moral problems universally. Philip J. Ivanhoe puts it this way: “Xunzi claims that a proper sense of right and wrong and the ability unwaveringly to pursue the former and turn away from the latter can arise only out of the reflective practice of a particular set of ritual: those of Confucianism. Only this particular set of rituals can shape, direct and orient human beings in ways that satisfy their basic needs and desires and expand the horizon of their meaningful activities in ways that provide an optimally satisfying life. The Confucian Way brings order to society and harmoniously situates the human realm within the larger natural order.” (p. 240) The venerable D.C. Lau, too, seems to hold a similar view: “[O]n Xunzi’s showing there is one, and only one, possible solution, viz. morality.” (p. 208) (Note that Lau translates liyi 禮義 as ‘morality’, and presumably it is liyi which he refers to here.)
Discussion and argumentation in support of this position is generally brief, the longest being in Bryan W. Van Norden’s response to Chad Hansen’s “conventionalist” position. Van Norden here offers a short argument bolstered by quotations from Xunzi which seem to support his position (see pp. 120-122). He concludes, “As attractive as a conventionalist reading might be in some ways, numerous passages in the Xunzi demonstrate that this philosopher is an objectivist and ‘monist’ about ritual, music, the Way, and at least some aspects of language use.” (p. 120) He also writes, “Xunzi does hold that the Way had to be invented, but he holds (rather naively) that the Way of the sage kings is the uniquely optimal way for structuring a society. Xunzi holds that this particular Way is the one that does best the many things which such schemes are supposed to do.” (p. 121, emphasis his) David Nivison has a similar view on this matter, but his solution is more subtle and qualified. “They [human customs, ‘rites’ and norms] had to happen, come to be, in more or less the form they have, sooner or later; and the fact that we see they are man-made does not insulate them from our commitment to them: their ‘artificiality’ thus in no way renders them not really obligatory and normative.” (p. 185)
A book review of this sort does not seem the proper place to launch the kind of argument necessary to challenge this line of thought. I simply wish to point out that the theme is there, and to note that although contrary views have been articulated, they surface in this collection only in comments by those who disagree with them (see pp. 119-120 and p. 177). And, finally, I would suggest that this issue deserves further scrutiny because, on the interpretation given here, I’m afraid Xunzi’s philosophy becomes much less interesting and relevant than it can be.