A Brief Project Description:
Xunzi's ideas were central to Confucian thinking for over a thousand years, and he has left indelible marks on that tradition despite his marginalization by the Neo-Confucians of the Song dynasty. Arguably the most brilliant thinker of ancient China, and certainly the most systematic, he has been called the "The Aristotle of the East." In significant ways, this important figure has been misrepresented in the English language literature. This project is, in part, an effort to rectify that.
Many associate Xunzi's name with the pessimistic sounding slogan "Human nature is evil" (xing e). But Xunzi was no pessimist. He was a realist in the sense of being hard-nosed, empirically minded, and not given to wishful thinking as a substitute for intelligent observation. He has also been taken to be a "realist" in a completely different sense, that is, as a "moral realist" who believes in a determinate moral structure to the world. I develop a "constructivist" interpretation in contrast to such a view, presenting it as not only a better interpretation of Xunzi, but also a more plausible position philosophically.
Statement of Aims and Rationale:
My goal is to describe "Confucian constructivism" as both a defensible interpretation of Xunzi (and thus of interest to specialists), and--perhaps more importantly--as a philosophical position which may be appealing to contemporary Confucians and Western thinkers alike. My task, then, is to put forward as compelling a view as I can, knowing that the distinction between what is a faithful depiction of Xunzi's thought and what is an interpretive reconstruction will not always be possible to discern--even for myself. In this, my approach is consistent with my interpretation, and with the actual development of the tradition, for transmission mixed with constructive innovation has been the lifeblood of Confucianism.
On the realist interpretation, Xunzi is thought to claim 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. 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.
I seek to establish that the text supports a different--and more reasonable--interpretation. Over a long period, the sages developed a workable set of social institutions, moral categories, and divisions of roles and responsibilities. Xunzi did not consider them final, complete, universal or timeless. Rather, they were the historically contingent products of constructive activity (wei) designed to facilitate peace and social harmony. While they were responsive to enduring regularities in nature and human nature, they were not insensitive to context, and were thus expected to evolve with the times. In addition, while Xunzi perceived a practical need for unity of thought, his underlying worldview allowed room for more than one way of achieving a harmonious society.
I begin with the general concept of dao, and argue that while Xunzi sees a practical problem in having competing moral doctrines, his worldview allows for the possibility of pluralism. Further, his dao is positively processional, contextual and contingent. There is no assumption of any singular ultimate or transcendently fixed Way. The dao is constantly being made and remade by the conscience efforts of exemplary people making the most of the situations they confront.
The second chapter goes straight to the core of the problem, which is a misunderstanding of Xunzi's conception of the nature of li (patterns). Li are not fixed in nature as givens. Rather, while li address regularities in the world of nature and human nature, li also necessarily involve interpretations of those regularities.
Then I turn to the issue of naming, which serves the function of formalizing particular patterns (or ways of patterning) in language. That is, naming not only assigns a label to a pattern, but also establishes particular patternings as significant. The character ming, generally translated as "name," includes both the idea of name as label, as well as the idea of concept. For Xunzi, naming is both labeling and making judgments about what patterns should be thereby sanctioned. This can be done well or poorly, but there is no predetermined or privileged set of patterns waiting to be discerned and then labeled. While this applies to names generally, the Confucian emphasis on zhengming, or attunement of language, centers primarily on concepts of moral significance, "father" and "son" for example, and the patterns of roles and responsibilities that go with those name-concepts. Thus, the construction of language, for Xunzi, is a task with great ethical significance.
Like naming, ritual propriety, which is central to Confucian self-cultivation, involves a kind of patterning. In this case, norms of appropriate behavior are patterned through the habit-forming practice of ritualized conduct, rather than through language.
After discussing ritual propriety as the means of self-cultivation, I turn finally to the goal of that cultivation: the development of a virtuous character. I argue that, for Xunzi, there is not just one way to be virtuous, and neither is the project of developing oneself ever complete. Thus, Xunzi's conception of virtue as contingent and evolving is consistent with his conception of language and ritual propriety. This completes the circle, for it is the virtuous person (junzi), cultivated through ritual practice, who in turn sets the standards for that practice, and for an appropriate patterning of language to go along with it.
Last Date Modified: 05/18/2010
Kurtis Hagen, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org