MPhil Thesis Abstract

“Moral Standards, Spontaneity, and Beauty in Early Chinese

This thesis is about three concepts in Warring States Chinese philosophy—fǎ 法,
xìng 性, and měi 美—that give rise to the three themes that make up the title of
this thesis: moral standards, moral spontaneity, and moral beauty.

In the first chapter, I defend my choice to focus exclusively on the Chinese concepts. Primarily, I argue that it is often a mistake to ascribe Western philosophical theories and concepts to early Chinese thinkers when we are in the business of interpreting ancient Chinese texts. To do so is to both ascribe too many Western habits of thought to ancient Chinese philosophers, and to give a false sense of similarity between Chinese and Western concepts. To this end, I offer three studies that showcase the importance of understanding the nature and role of Chinese concepts in Chinese philosophical thought.

In the second chapter, I discuss the concept of fǎ as the central concept of Mohist moral reasoning. By that I mean that the vast majority of Mohist normative reasoning is ultimately constituted by either direct or indirect appeals to fǎ. This overall interpretation has consequences for a number of contemporary discussions in Mohist scholarship, and I mention some of these consequences at the end of the chapter.

In the third chapter, I discuss the concept of xìng and the role it plays in Xunzi’s moral philosophy. After offering a charitable interpretation of Xunzi’s moral philosophy, I subject it to the criticism of the primitivists, a rival philosophical group. Overall I attempt to show that although the primitivists point to real weaknesses in the conceptual foundation of Xunzi’s program of moral education, his proposal is ultimately more practical than theirs given basic social and political realities.

In the fourth chapter, I discuss the concept of měi in Xunzi’s philosophy. I argue
in the first place that as a moral virtue, we might understand měi as a restricted
and particular notion of “moral beauty” in so far as it denotes both an aesthetic
evaluation and a moral evaluation. I argue in the second place that měi when
predicated of institutions, however, retains little of this connection with either
aesthetics or morality, and is instead more an assessment of the “orderliness” of
social customs.

In the fifth chapter, I suggest some of the work that might be done with these
concepts as I understand them. The concept of fǎ, for example, might serve as an
alternative to thinking of morality exclusively in terms of either laws or virtues.
The concept of xìng as a kind of natural spontaneity I think serves as an alternative to conceptions of human nature as what is innate. Finally, the concept of měi when generously reconstructed I think illustrates a virtue worthy of further philosophical examination and use.

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