Category Archives: Xunzi

How China Can Defeat America — Confucianism! NYT op-ed

A New York Times op-ed piece by Yan Xuetong, professor of Political Science at Tsinghua University, that cites “humane authority” in the “battle for people’s hearts and minds” as the key to victory. Here is the beginning of the piece:

WITH China’s growing influence over the global economy, and its increasing ability to project military power, competition between the United States and China is inevitable. Leaders of both countries assert optimistically that the competition can be managed without clashes that threaten the global order.

Most academic analysts are not so sanguine. If history is any guide, China’s rise does indeed pose a challenge to America. Rising powers seek to gain more authority in the global system, and declining powers rarely go down without a fight. And given the differences between the Chinese and American political systems, pessimists might believe that there is an even higher likelihood of war.

I am a political realist. Western analysts have labeled my political views “hawkish,” and the truth is that I have never overvalued the importance of morality in international relations. But realism does not mean that politicians should be concerned only with military and economic might. In fact, morality can play a key role in shaping international competition between political powers — and separating the winners from the losers.

I came to this conclusion from studying ancient Chinese political theorists like Guanzi, Confucius, Xunzi and Mencius. They were writing in the pre-Qin period, before China was unified as an empire more than 2,000 years ago — a world in which small countries were competing ruthlessly for territorial advantage.

To read the full op-ed piece, follow the permalink above. Comments welcome!

Xunzi and the Mohists on Natural Disasters

In a famous passage, Xúnzǐ argues that natural disasters lead to catastrophe only because of human failings: with the proper preparation, floods and droughts still occur, but do not devastate. I’m probably not the only friend of this blog who found special poignancy in this argument while lecturing on it in the aftermath of Katrina.

The news today has been good. Irene seems to have weakened unexpectedly. (I hope this hasn’t changed since last I saw good information.) Here in Philadelphia, it looks like we’ll get a category one hurricane, the equivalent (in Hong Kong terms) of a typhoon signal ten. I think there was just one of those in the ten years I lived in Hong Kong; we didn’t even lose internet. I’m preparing mostly by baking lots of bread and making lots of hummus. I’m still a bit nervous, because I don’t know what I can expect from local construction, and the American infrastructure is (understandably, to an extent) less robust than Hong Kong’s. And there are lots of people more vulnerable than I am, and lots of people who have been and are going to be hit harder. I’m glad that friends have evacuated the Jersey shore, and am proud of friends who are part of the preparations and will be part of the response.

In any case, it’s got me thinking about Xúnzǐ, and also about the Mohists, who would have interpreted a storm like Irene as a punishment from heaven. Continue reading →

Xunzi on Poverty

Book 9 of the Xunzi includes a passage that seems to argue that in order to prevent desperate poverty (qiong 窮) it is necessary that some people be poor (pin 貧) while others are rich. Sorting out the view Xunzi takes of poverty in this argument is harder than you might expect.

The argument’s central claim is that if people are equal in their power and position and the same in their desires and aversions, this will inevitably lead to conflict, disorder, and poverty. The sages are supposed to have solved this problem by establishing the rituals and the duties, a hierarchical system that ensures that some can lead while others follow.

Why, though, must there be inequality of wealth as well as of power? Continue reading →

Neville's Projects for Chinese Philosophy

Many of you will recently have received the most recent ISCWP Newsletter. (If any readers are not members of the ISCWP and would like to be, please see information here about joining. There no mandatory dues.) In a short lead article, Sor-hoon Tan summarizes some remarks the Robert Neville made on the subject of the future of Chinese philosophy. I post the key points here.

The following is an excerpt of the eight projects which is discussed in much greater detail in the paper, a revised version of which will be published in the Pluralist, vol. 5, no. 2 (Summer 2010):

Empirical Perspective on Mencius-Xunzi Debate

Eric Schwitzgebel, one of our contributors, is having problems registering for a WordPress ID, so he has asked me to post this podcast of a lecture that he presented on the Mencius-Xunzi human nature debate. It is also cross-posted over at his blog The Splintered Mind:

******************************************

Podcast of “An Empirical Perspective on the Mencius-Xunzi Debate about Human Nature”

… given to the Confucius Institute of Scotland on Jan. 19, available for listening or download here.

Continue reading →

Xunzi and the Aesthetic-Moral Value Fusion

So, among other things, I’m working on a longish paper on aesthetic value and its fusion in early China with what we would consider to be moral value.  There are portions of this I’ll be presenting in Hong Kong next week (“Aesthetic Pleasure as Early Confucian Happiness”) and at the end of March at the Pacific APA meeting in San Francisco (“Gentlemen Prefer Bronze: Aesthetic Sensibility as Moral Sense in the Analects“). This is part of my discussion on Xunzi (which I will not be presenting anywhere), that aims for an aesthetic-value consequentialism reading:

What ties together much of Xunzi’s work is his emphasis on the transformative effects of education and self-cultivation, largely through the poetry, music, and rituals of Confucian life, incorporating traditional texts, forms, and activities. This is the backbone of Xunzi’s thought. In education and self-cultivation, it is the refined and noble quality of a person’s demeanor, inner psychological state, and activity that justifies the program of education and regimen of self-cultivation. The knowledge contained in the Zhou-derived rituals, music, odes, historical documents and records, according to Xunzi, enters the heart, disperses throughout the body, and is manifested both in activity and in rest (Xunzi 1). Continue reading →

Xunzi and Mencius Meld

Some while ago (1999) I tried to argue that Mencius didn’t really believe in proactive moral cultivation because he thought of human nature as already possessing the directional force toward goodness. The only thing a ruler need do is to provide minimally stable political and economic conditions. Then, if people do not interfere with their own development or with the development of others, then everything will turn out fine, with mulberry trees growing in their seasons, the elderly not having to sweat in the fields, children being filial, etc. That puts Mencius more in line with the Daodejing’s political stance than people usually think, though of course he isn’t entirely for the rustic utopia the latter suggests.

Let me suggest here that if that isn’t Mencius’s view, then it is actually very difficult to justify Xunzi’s vehement opposition to Mencius. The view that most of us were taught to believe is that Mencius thinks humans have nascent capacity for goodness that then needs to be cultivated through education and moral training; then at the end of that process they may end up as good subjects, advisors, or the ruler. For convenience, let’s call that the “moral-training” reading of Mencius. The thing that strikes me as problematic here is that if this is indeed Mencius’s view, then there’s really no difference between it and Xunzi’s views of the matter. Or, perhaps I should say instead, either Mencius has a view that is different from Xunzi’s or Xunzi didn’t realize that his view doesn’t really differ from Mencius’s.

Here’s what I have in mind regarding Xunzi on capacities and cultivation. In the “Human Nature is Detestable” (xing e 性惡) chapter, Xunzi argues that anyone could (ke 可) become a sage like the sage-ruler Yu. But not everyone has the possessed ability (neng 能) to be a sage. As it turns out, everyone has the capacities to be ren 仁 and yi 義, benevolent and upright, but not everyone applies himself to the task of accumulating the effort and training to be good. Why is that any different from the view attributed to Mencius by the moral-training reading of him? If it isn’t different, then what is Xunzi’s beef with Mencius since they seem to hold the very same view?

Here’s some of the relevant Xunzi text (I’ve numbered the text so it’s convenient for us to talk about it; and I’ve typed in Watson’s translation):

  1. “塗之人可以為禹。”曷謂也?曰:凡禹之所以為禹者,以其為仁義法正也。然則仁義法正有可知可能之理。然而塗之人也,皆有可以知仁義法正之質,皆有可以能 仁義法正之具,然則其可以為禹 明矣。The man in the street can become a Yu. What does this mean? What made the sage emperor Yu a Yu, I would reply, was the fact that he practiced benevolence and righteousness and abided by the proper rules and standards. If this is so, then benevolence, righteousness, and proper standards must be based upon principles which can be known and practiced. Any man in the street has the essential faculties needed to understand benevolence, righteousness, and proper standards, and the potential ability to put them into practice. Therefore it is clear that he can become a Yu.
  2. 今以仁義法正為固無可知可能之理邪?然則唯禹不知仁義法正,不能仁義法正也。Would you maintain that benevolence, righteousness, and proper standards are not based upon any principles that can be known and practiced? If so, then even a Yu could not have understood or practiced them.
  3. 將使塗之人固無可以知仁義法正之質,而固無可以能仁義法正之具邪?然則 塗之人也,且內不可以知父子之義,外不可以知君臣之正。今不然。Or would you maintain that the man in the street does not have the essential faculties needed to understand them or the potential ability to put them into practice? If so, then you are saying that the man in the street in his family life cannot understand the duties required of a father or a son and in public life cannot comprehend the correct relationship between ruler and subject. But in fact this is not true.
  4. 塗之人者,皆內可以知父子之義,外可以知君臣之正,然則其可以知之質,可以能之具,其在塗 之人明矣。今使塗之人者,以其可以知之質,可以能之具,本夫仁義法正之可知可能之理,可能之具,然則其可以為禹明矣。Any man in the street can understand the duties required of a father or a son and can comprehend the correct relationship between ruler and subject. Therefore, it is obvious that the essential faculties needed to understand such ethical principles and the potential ability to put them into practice must be a part of his make-up. Now if he takes these faculties and abilities and applies them to the principles of benevolence and righteousness, which we have already shown to be knowable and practicable, then it is obvious that he can become a Yu.
  5. 今使塗之人伏術為學,專心一志,思索 孰察,加日縣久,積善而不息,則通於神明,參於天地矣。故聖人者,人之所積而致矣。If the man in the street applies himself to training and study, concentrates his mind and will, and considers and examines things carefully, continuing his efforts over a long period of time and accumulating good acts without stop, then he can achieve a godlike understanding and form a triad with Heaven and earth. The sage is a man who has arrived where he has through the accumulation of good acts.

As always, let me know what you think.

The Good: Good For, Good At (shan 善), and Benefit (li 利)

Let’s see; I’m trying to figure out how to think about the ancient Chinese term shan 善, roughly “good,” in relation to the various senses of “good” that we as philosophers try to distinguish these days. This has a bearing on, among other things, what to make of the pre-Qin positions on human-nature-is-good (ren xing shan ye), bad (e 惡), neither, or both. I vaguely recall reading somewhere that shan means something more like “good at” (“competent”?), but I can’t recall exactly where–Graham? Nivison? Anyway, here are some senses of good that I’m used to hearing philosophers distinguish from among:

  1. “Good for” – this seems to be the primary “non-moral” sense of “good” that is used in discussing goods that can be indexed to individuals, groups, or things. X can be good for Y in the sense that X is of value to some end or interest of Y. We often speak of something good in this sense as a good or as goods. Such goods seem always quantifiable in this way.
  2. “Good at” – this seems to be a sense of “good” that tracks something like the Greek term for “excellence,” arete (αρετη–sorry for leaving out diacriticals; can’t seem to do them right now). X is good in this sense if X is capable or competent at doing or being something. Example: “As a golfer, Woods is really good.”
  3. “Morally or aesthetically good” – this seems to be a sense of “good” that has something to do with worth that “has no price” (to use a Kantian expression). X is good in this sense if it/he/she is praiseworthy for its/his/her own sake, not for its/his/her value to something else or at doing or being some particular thing. Examples: “That painting is good.” “She wasn’t good but she had good intentions.”

I’m pretty sure these are significantly distinct, non-overlapping senses of “good,” although something, or someone, might be good in all three senses. So, let me say or ask a few things.

First, are there more senses of “good” than this that are significantly different from any of them?

Second, it seems to me like we need to figure out which sense or senses of “good” shan overlaps with or else say what other sense it has; otherwise, obviously, we don’t have a handle on what the ren xing debate is about.

Third, it seems to me like li, “benefit,” is closely allied to the first sense, “good for.”

Some initial thoughts that I have: Shan never struck me as meaning “good at” mainly because I haven’t really seen uniformly in the contexts of its use that there is an indication of what something is “shan at.” If so, then it seems like we have to settle on either 1 (good for), 3 (morally/aesthetically good), or some overlap between them. But “good for” suffers from the same contextual problem as “good at”–e.g. it isn’t uniformly clear that there is something a shan thing is “shan for.” Could shan mean something more like morally or aesthetically good? Here is a reason not to go that way too quickly, though we might end up there eventually:

It seems to me like Xunzi, in his discussion of ren xing could be understood as investigating whether it is good at producing order and harmony (which seem themselves on the other had to be li 利, goods in the good for (humans) sense); Xunzi finds that ren xing is not at all good at producing them. However, that moves Xunzi to conclude that ren xing is e 惡, which seems pretty clearly to mean that it is unseemly or ugly. But that suggests either (a) that shan overlaps in meaning between “good at” and “morally/aesthetically good” and Xunzi is equivocating between his criticism of Mencius and his conclusion about ren xing; or (b) Xunzi’s criticism isn’t really about the incompetence of innate disposition to produce order and harmony. I think I prefer (a), but could it really be that shan is so much like the contemporary English term “good” that it has that much similarity in equivocation potential? My instinct here is to be suspicious about that. Any suggestions, comments, critical remarks, interlocutory agreement?