Hagen Gives Lecture Series on Xunzi at Fudan

Kurtis Hagen of SUNY Plattsburgh will be delivering three lectures on Xunzi, all from 10:00am-11:30am, on May 27, 29, and 30, at Fudan University in Shanghai. Details follow!

Lecture Series on the Philosophy of Xunzi: Confessions of a Confucian Heretic


Dr. Kurtis Hagen

Department of Philosophy, SUNY Plattsburgh


时间(time):5月27、29、30日(May 27, 29, and 30)10:00-11:30;

地点(place):光华西主楼(Western Guanghua Tower)2401

Kurtis Hagen is Associate Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Plattsburgh. He is the author of The Philosophy of Xunzi: A Reconstruction (Open Court, 2007) and about a dozen articles on Confucian philosophy, including articles on Confucian perspectives on warfare and human rights. He is currently collaborating with a colleague on a textbook entitled Philosophers of the Warring States: An Annotated Anthology of Early Chinese Philosophy. He is also interested in applied philosophy, and in past few years published “Is Infiltration of ‘Extremist Groups’ Justified?” in the International Journal of Applied Philosophy (fall 2010), and “Conspiracy Theories and Stylized Facts” in the Journal for Peace and Justice Studies (fall 2011). He is also working on a book that combines his various interests, A New Confucian Century: Warfare and Human Rights in a Confucian World Order.

Lecture 1:

“Patterns and Categories in the Xunzi: A Western Debate over Confucian Metaphysics”

ABSTRACT: On one interpretation, Xunzi claims 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. In this view, the ritual patterns of the early 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. I seek to establish that the text supports a different—and more reasonable—interpretation: The sages over time and through trial and error developed a workable set of social institutions. This does not entail that it is the only, or even absolutely best, set of institutions, or that it is final, complete, universal or timeless. Rather, institutions are social constructs designed to facilitate peace and social harmony. As circumstances change, institutions may also change.

Lecture 2:

“Ritual, Motivation, and Self-Cultivation in the Xunzi

ABSTRACT: For Xunzi, forms of appropriate behavior provide patterns of social life. By sincerely following these norms one cultivates a virtuous character. This new character, like the norms of propriety by which it is formed, is a construct (wei伪), that is, a contingent product of human effort. There is no fixed pattern of virtue, and the process of developing oneself never comes to an end. Xunzi’s conception of virtue as contingent and evolving is consistent with his conception of language and ritual propriety. Indeed, it completes a circle. It is the virtuous person (junzi君子), 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. Such a person fulfills the name “exemplary person.” What drives the process of cultivating virtue through ritual propriety is natural human desire. This may seem paradoxical because Xunzi insists that natural human dispositions (xing), and the emotional desires that constitute them, are detestable (e). But they are detestable only because they lead to misery, chaos, and self-destruction if not checked by intelligence and by the various human constructs that are products of intelligence. But desire guided by intelligence, and intelligently crafted constructs, such as ritual propriety, can lead to the development of a parallel motivational structure, a virtuous character. The virtuous person follows their acquired character, which “triumphs over” their petty natural desires. But the motivation for acquiring a virtuous character stems from prudent consequentialist reasoning based on just these natural desires.

Lecture 3:

“Xunzi’s Relevance Today: World Order, Use of the Military, and the Role of Intellectuals”

ABSTRACT: After briefly discussing how understanding Xunzi’s philosophy may help us understand the East Asian challenge to human rights, I address (1) Xunzi’s conception of world order, (2) his view on the proper use of the military, and (3) the role of intellectuals in keeping political leaders from going astray. I argue that Xunzi’s conception of world order need not be seen as monolithic. This reading provides a plausible model of world order that balances various competing concerns, and could be considered an improvement of our current situation without involving radical change. Regarding the use of the military, I argue that Xunzi can be read as offering criteria for the justified use of the military that are very difficult to satisfy. Read this way, Xunzi can provide reasonable Confucian reasons to be skeptical of the appropriateness of supposedly humanitarian military interventions. Finally, in the context of Xunzi’s view that human nature is detestable, and in line with his exhortation to dissolve beguilements (jiebi 解蔽), I argue that intellectuals need to remain diligent and critical in examining the realities of the world and the motives their own leaders, and live up to their responsibility to correct prejudiced and inaccurate depictions of our circumstance and history and to remonstrate with wayward leaders.

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