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.

19 replies on “Xunzi and Mencius Meld”

  1. Nice post Manyul.

    Xunzi seems in general to dislike the tendencies of thought A. C. Graham dates to the end of 4th century BCE: namely Song Xing (“the essential desires are few”) and Yang Zhu (the importance, and perhaps even the moral significance of spontaneous, genuine inclinations rooted in human nature). On these points Mencius agreed with Song Xing and Yang Zhu, and my impression is that that’s why he disliked Mencius.

    Another possible reason is the attitude towards Heaven? Here’s my crude understanding on this score. Mencius: we should serve Heaven by developing our nature. Xunzi: we form equal partners with Heaven (which generates things) and earth (which provides resources), each with their own work to do (our work is to establish social order through wei.

    I’ve just started thinking seriously about the possible similarities/contrast between Xunzi and Mencius. It is indeed puzzling whether they actually agreed or disagreed on human nature, and I look forward to listening in on the conversations on this.

  2. Interesting, Boram. I’ll think about that. (Boram, two hours a week is 17+ minutes a day.)

    Manyul, I’m not sure what to think about these things yet, but I have a couple of sprouts of thoughts.

    Xunzi is attacking certain of Mencius’ sayings (presumably these were among Mencius’ most famous sayings). That isn’t quite the same as attacking Mencius’ beliefs!

    Maybe Xunzi had something like the Mencius book we have, or something that presented similar interpretive difficulties. (So far as I know, we don’t have a report that Mencius had a follower who he felt understood him well.) Xunzi might well have attacked a few famous sayings and the views they suggest, without having had an opinion about what Mencius thought. Xunzi might have been more concerned about the sayings than about Mencius, just as Mencius may have been more concerned about popular Mohism than about Mozi or the Mozi.

    Incidentally, in 6A6 Mencius uses ke 可 and neng 能 in ways that seem to line up with Xunzi’s use in the quoted passage.

    “As far as what is genuinely in him is conerned, a man is capable of [ ke 可 ] becoming good. That is what I mean by good.” (Lau)

    “There are cases where one man is twice, five times or countless times better than another man, but this is only because there are people who fail to [ bu neng 不能 ] make the best of their native endowment.” (Lau)

    (Mencius seems to use neng rather differently in 1A7; but one of the most salient features of the Mencius, I think, is that Mencius seems very casual and flexible in his use of terms.)

  3. Bill, thanks for pointing out 6A6’s use of ke and neng. I don’t much like Lau’s translation of bu neng 不能 as ‘fail to’; it should be more specifically that some people are unable to make best of their cai 才. That distinguishes them from, for example, Xuan of Qi who in 1A7 fails to make best of his benevolence but that is because he will not, bu wei 不為; he mistakenly thinks he is unable to, bu neng 不能.

    I think the predominant tendency is to think Xunzi didn’t understand Mencius well enough to see that their views were very similar: humans have the necessary capacities (ke 可, if you will) but such capacities aren’t sufficient; extra work with them is also necessary to give humans the ability (neng 能) to do what is good.

    I’m trying to push the idea that Xunzi actually did understand Mencius more or less correctly, that at the core of Mencius’s views about natural endowment and the heart-mind is a radically, maybe hopelessly, optimistic view that the capacities for benevolence, rectitude, ritual propriety, and wisdom are sufficient, if they are allowed their natural direction of development, without interference and without having to work strenuously on their behalf. One shouldn’t “pull at the sprouts” like the farmer of Song. Those who are interfered with are bu neng, unable, but everyone else is like Xuan–they have no real excuse. If that is what Mencius thinks, then Xunzi’s remarks about him are at least directed at a roughly accurate depiction.

  4. Hi Manyul. I always proofread my comments to make sure they’re unclear.

    Actually I understood all that about your project, and would still say what I said, which was directed only to one aspect of the question of the strength of the Xunzi quote as evidence about Mencius’ views.

    I agree with you that much of what Mencius says seems to commit him to the minimal-cultivation view. But I’m not sure that the seeming evidence that he rejected this view can be explained away. (I should make that case in a long comment after re-reading your PEW 42.1 article, but I won’t have time in the next few days.) So I think there’s a huge problem of interpretation of the Mencius here. So I think it would make sense for Xunzi to attack certain sayings without having had a view about Mencius’ views. Xunzi could say what he said even if you’re wrong about Mencius’s views and Xunzi wasn’t.

    I’m not sure how you’re reading the sentences I quoted from 6A6. Here are two possibilities:

    “When I say it is our nature that we are good, I mean it is our nature that we are able to act well.”
    “[Though we are all good,] some are immeasurably better than others. That is because some are more able than others to act well.”

    This reading seems to say that even the worst people are “good”, which just means they’re able to act well; only their ability to act well is so subpar that we can casualy call it no ability at all.

    “When I say it is our nature that we are good, I mean it is our nature that we are able to become good.”
    “To ‘become good’ is to become able to act well.”

    On this reading the distinction between ke 可 and neng 能 is marking a distinction between what Aristotle would call first and second potentials. Ke 可 is the ability to develop the ability that is neng能. But on this reading the first sentence does not obviously disagree with Xunzi, and the second sentence seems false.

  5. Here’s a better comment on (A) than my comment on it just above:

    This reading seems to say that even Jie and Zhou were “good”, and that the difference between the worst and the best of us is in how much we are able to act well: how much of the ability mentioned in the first sentence we have.
    On this reading the abilities in the two sentences are of the same kind. But Mencius’ words seem to rule that idea out. For (1) the ability mentioned in the first sentence is a natural gift. But (2) the ability mentioned in the second sentence is an ability to “exhaust one’s gifts,” so presumably it is not included in those gifts.

  6. Bill, interesting comments. The crucial issue here, in my thinking, is *how* the natural gifts, or capacities 可, end up enabling 能 a person to be good. I think the answer to that in Mencius lies some place on a continuum between no effort and strenuous effort. The closer it actually is to strenuous effort, the more Mencius’s view is like Xunzi’s. I would place Mencius closer to no effort, with the caveat that people can *ruin* the transformation of their own capacities, or those of others, into abilities with effort. The default, then, is to become able. Something like a “first-order” effort is the effort someone puts into ruining themselves or others. The effort that Mencius thinks of as required is something like a “second-order” effort: the effort to remove the first-order efforts to ruin people’s natural development. So, I guess in that sense, I think of Mencius’s idea of “effort” to be relevantly different from that of Xunzi’s. (As I write this, I’m starting to wonder if my use of “minimal effort” is misleading and that the first-order, second-order talk is better.)

  7. You could look at the statements in which Xunzi actually tells us what he thinks Mencius was saying, and at the arguments he presents against Mencius so interpreted. There are three instances; I’ll give them in what I take to be the order Xunzi wrote them. Note that when people claim that Xunzi misunderstood Mencius (which often leads up to the claim that he didn’t really disagree with Mencius that much), they generally focus only on the first of these interpretations of Mencius.

    1. 孟子曰:「人之性善。」 “Mencius says, it is people’s xing to be good.” Xunzi takes this to mean that people will be good if not interfered with, and therefore that if Mencius is right then the sage kings and the rituals and duties are unnecessary. I sometimes argue that MC 6A/2 does imply something like this view, but no one agrees with me, and it’s generally agreed that here Xunzi gets Mencius wrong.

    2. 孟子曰:「人之學者,其性善。」 “Mencius says, people who study/learn, it is their xing to be good.” In other words, correct moral training will result in a good xing. This sounds a lot more like what we expect from Mencius: we can become good through a process of cultivation that does not require disruption or imposition, but rather something like a natural growth, and the result is a good xing. Xunzi disagrees: the sort of training that is required to be good interferes with natural tendencies, so the result is not xing but artifice.

    3. 孟子曰:「今人之性善,將皆失喪其性故[惡]也。」 “Mencius says, now it is people’s xing to be good, but they are apt to lose their xing, so [they are bad].” Substitute “心” for “性” (which I think is a substantive change, but I don’t know if anyone agrees), and you get a view that’s pretty prominent in MC 6A. Xunzi’s counterargument: it’s inevitable that we lose our original simplicity, in fact it’s our xing to separate from our original simplicity, so that’s not what makes the difference between good and bad. (I think this also counts as an argument that it’s not people’s xing to be bad, but that’s another story.)

    So: in at least two out of the three statements in which he offers interpretations of Mencius, Xunzi seems to get at least significant parts of the Mencius right, and his arguments set out clear disagreements with what he takes to be Mencius’s view.

  8. Thanks Manyul.

    I’m not quite ready to speak to that main point, but here’s what I have today, to keep the wires humming.

    Here’s a proposed paraphrase of an aspect of your paper, as relevant to possible ways of distinguishing varieties of capacity/ability: Mencius is operating with a distinction something like the belief/desire distinction, except that instead of beliefs what he has in mind is expertise about e.g. ritual (expertise that involves what we might call both true beliefs and skill). The four hearts are us the right desires or motivations or emotions, and these are the things that don’t need much effort for development, or need only protective effort. What it is for these to be mere “abilities” or “capacities” rather than virtues is that to yield excellent dispositions or excellent practice they need two or three supplements: they need (a) basic background resources so the hearts stay healthy, (b) expertise so the hearts know how to act on their concerns, and (c) that we ask ourselves the right questions in deliberating. Thus there are at least seven different senses in which someone with the basic heart endowments may have a mere “ability” to be good: what she has may need to be supplemented by (a), by (b), by (c), or by any of the four combinations of those.

    The rulers Mencius addresses seem at first glance to have (a), though arguably they rob themselves of social resources by the way they treat people (1B1). It’s a little surprising on this picture that we don’t see Mencius more concerned with giving rulers (b). He certainly tries to help them with (c).

  9. Hey Dan,

    Regarding your #2 above:

    2. 孟子曰:「人之學者,其性善。」 “Mencius says, people who study/learn, it is their xing to be good.” In other words, correct moral training will result in a good xing. This sounds a lot more like what we expect from Mencius: we can become good through a process of cultivation that does not require disruption or imposition, but rather something like a natural growth, and the result is a good xing. Xunzi disagrees: the sort of training that is required to be good interferes with natural tendencies, so the result is not xing but artifice.

    That makes it sounds like the dispute is entirely conceptual: The process of cultivation would be exactly the same for Mencius and Xunzi–probably: studying the histories, rites, poetry, etc. and becoming proficient in ritualized interactions–i.e. the stuff of 學. The only difference would be that Mencius conceptualizes cultivation as non-disruptive (instead, it is expressive or natural outgrowth) while Xunzi conceptualizes exactly the same cultivation as disruptive, or better, as melioratively “interruptive” through artifice. (‘Melioratively’ is a word I just made up because I couldn’t think of anything better; sorry.)

    I’ve been more inclined to try to interpret the difference between them as more substantive, having to do with whether a process of cultivation is actually *necessary* on the account of Mencius that seems plausibly attributable to him. For that I would think of what you point out as #1 to be the paradigm for Mencius’s view. So, I’m confused that you think of #1 as the view people attribute to Mencius when they argue for Xunzi’s misunderstanding of Mencius. It seems to me like all three of the statements by Xunzi you cite are viable candidates for a view attributable to Mencius, that Xunzi *correctly* understands to be different from his own. If anything, it’s #2, understood in the way you gloss it, that makes Xunzi’s objection to Mencius seem less than substantive and instead to be *merely* conceptual. Maybe I’m misunderstanding your comments.

  10. Hi Manyul,

    I meant that people focus on #1 when they talk about how Xunzi interprets Mencius, and this usually leads them to conclude that Xunzi misinterprets Mencius; sorry if that wasn’t clear.

    Xunzi treats the disagreement in #2 as a conceptual one, doesn’t he? He objects to Mencius by setting out what he takes to be the correct way of understanding the distinction between xing and artifice, not by talking about what steps are required for cultivation.

    Still—I think there’s a real tendency in the Mencius to present moral improvement as somehow easy for us (and easy because natural, at least some of the time). E.g., 1A/7 (which I think we read pretty similarly, at least on this point) has Mencius saying to just pick up this heart and apply it over there, insisting that this does not raise quesitons of ability. Xunzi certainly would disagree with this, and my #2 should probably be read against the background of that disagreement.

  11. I have two questions.

    Question 1, Manyul, is about your comment #7. I suppose what would qualify something as first-order effort or second-order effort is the person’s aims. My question is this: does Mencius think people engage in an effort to discard their hearts? Or does he just think they do things that have that effect? If it’s just the latter, then maybe there’s something slightly misleading about calling it “effort”, and thus something slightly misleading about saying that what Mencius recommends — the effort to stop doing those things — is “second-order effort”, or effort about effort.

    Mencius does sometimes invite us to conceive our wayward actions as self-attacks or as discarding our hearts, but I’ve been assuming he doesn’t mean they’re intentional self-attacks (as the charge that someone is “throwing the baby out with the bath” doesn’t accuse her of deliberately doing so).

    Question 2: When we talk about acorns, on the one hand it seems plausible that there is only a “conceptual” difference between saying that the acorn is just a pile of particles that can be pushed in certain directions by the elements and saying that an acorn naturally tends to become a tree. On the other hand, of course different conceptual schemes have different values. The natural-tendency conception can be defended on the grounds of its greater usefulness in important contexts. If acorns weren’t the way they are, the latter conception would not be useful. But how is it exactly that the latter conception (and maybe an even more robustly Aristotelian conception) is so much more useful than the former? I suppose it has to do with conceptual economy and the similarities among many kinds of living thing (and, nowadays, machine). I think the usefulness doesn’t require that it be easy to cultivate oak trees: orchids have natural tendencies too. Maybe it has to do with the point that in cultivating an orchid, one doesn’t input the structure of the thing. Can the difference between Mencius and Xunzi be understood in terms of the need to input some basic structure?

    (I’m talking here only about the model of development in the 1999 paper, not assuming that xing means natural tendency as opposed to repertoire of relatively spontaneous action.)

  12. I wonder where we would be today if Newton had said, “I don’t need to read Euclid, Galileo or Copernicus. I’ll just start all over again by myself.”

    There has already been considerable discussion of whether and how Mengzi differs from Xunzi, including analyses of the relevant textual evidence. See, just for starters,

    Goldin, Paul. Rituals of the Way: The Philosophy of Xunzi (Open Court, 1999).

    Hutton, Eric. “Does Xunzi Have a Consistent Theory of Human Nature.” Pp. 220-36 in Kline and Ivanhoe, Virtue, Nature and Moral Agency in the Xunzi (Hackett, 2000).

    Munro, Donald. “A Villain in the Xunzi.” Pp. 193-201 in Ivanhoe, Chinese Language, Thought and Culture (Open Court, 1996).

    Nivison, David S. “Xunzi on Human Nature.” Pp. 203-13 in The Ways of Confucianism (Open Court, 1996).

    And last (and definitely least)

    Van Norden, Bryan W. “Mengzi and Xunzi: Two Views of Human Agency.” Pp. 103-34 in Kline and Ivanhoe, Virtue, Nature and Moral Agency in the Xunzi (Hackett, 2000).

  13. This post has been sticking in my mind, and I’ve just associated it with a debate from linguistics. I don’t know if this will shed any interesting light, but here goes:

    In linguistics one of the huge debates is over the extent to which language is innate. Most famously Chomsky and Pinker argue that there is a Universal Grammar (UG) hardwired into our brains, and that the language we hear (or see, for signers) as children is interpreted by the language bits of the brain, which then develops a competence in language using special UG logic.

    The other side of the debate is that there is no UG, and children develop language competence using “general cognitive abilities”.

    One of the major arguments in this debate is the “poverty of the stimulus”. The UG side claim that there are things we know about language which we are not taught, and which it is impossible to infer just by listening to people and talking to them. For example, we know some sentences are wrong, even though we’re never taught they’re wrong. They say our UG faculty tells us that certain kinds of sentences can’t be right (given the general language conditions). The counter argument is that it’s not impossible to figure out these rules at all, you just need to know that language is rule-bound and that people are communicating – you don’t need a UG.

    So, could this be related to what Xunzi and Mengzi are arguing over? There are some differences: everyone acquires a language, not everyone becomes a junzi. A “moral faculty” would be different from UG in that it doesn’t always produce a full competence outcome. But an important similarity is that neither side of the UG debate advocates different treatment of children during language acquisition, just as it seems that Mengzi and Xunzi basically advocate the same kind of treatment for people to help them develop into junzi.

    If this kind of concept was what divided them, it would imply that Mengzi imagines a kind of moral faculty, which with no special input can develop a person’s moral quality. Xunzi would be denying that such a thing exists, and saying people learn morality just the same way as they learn to write or be wheelwrights. If the stimulus argument is relevant, it would imply that Mengzi thinks there is not enough evidence in the world for us to learn to be a junzi (but it doesn’t matter, because our moral faculty fills in the gaps); Xunzi thinks that it is possible to learn to be a junzi just by looking at the world, but the world will have to be appropriately organized by instructors, or we’ll learn the wrong thing.

    I offer this as an alternative to what Manyul said in comment 7, about putting Xunzi and Mengzi on a continuum – the existence or not of a moral faculty would provide a qualitative difference.

    Unfortunately, I haven’t read either text, so this all might be complete baboon gibber.

  14. Phil,

    That’s an interesting analogy. In the mirror-image of your position, I’m not very familiar with the universal grammar views, so I might be responding with gibbon gibber to your baboon gibber. But, here goes. Mencius and Xunzi both think there are “built-in” elements–cognitive and affective abilities–tied to being human, that are at least necessary to moral development. So in that sense I think both of them believe in an analog to universal grammar. The difference between them has always seemed to me at least to revolve around the “default status” of that grammar. Without extraordinary stimulation, would someone develop a language directly from possession of that grammar? A Mencius-linguist would say yes, I think. A Xunzi-linguist would say no, it takes some extraordinary stimulation (“effort” wei 偽). So, switching over to “morality,” Mencius thinks that the built-in human endowment can develop into the correct moral reactions, motivations, and judgments without extraordinary effort (though such effort might be required in certain circumstances to prevent external sources of sabotage). While Xunzi thinks that you can turn those endowments into correct moral reactions, etc only through extraordinary effort. Something like that.

  15. So, would it be true to say for either or both of them that you can achieve moral development without deliberate teaching? Does Mencius thing that human abilities+natural order (天/天理?) is enough to produce (some) junzis? Or do they think that it is necessary to have input in the form of books or instruction from sages like Yao and Confucius and the Duke of Zhou?
    On a related point, do they see becoming a junzi as a qualitative difference, or is everyone spread out on a scale from scoundrel to junzi?

  16. I don’t know that Mencius or Xunzi thinks deliberate teaching is absolutely necessary. If they did, they both would have the problem of “first” sages–the people who *could* not have relied on prior teachings because there were none. I’m very sure that each of them thinks the difference is not qualitative; each thinks that the sage and everyone else are of the same kind (tong lei 同纇).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.