Xunzi and the primitivists on natural spontaneity (xìng 性) and coercion

The following article entitled “Xunzi and the primitivists on natural spontaneity (xìng 性) and coercion” will appear in Asian Philosophy 27:3 (DOI here). It explores a hypothetical debate between the ru 儒 philosopher Xunzi and the primitivist writers associated with the Daoist tradition concerning the value of natural, human spontaneity (xìng 性). The author’s preprint can be found here, while the Abstract follows:

This article explores two opposing views from Warring States China concerning the value of human natural spontaneity (hereafter xìng 性) and large-scale government coercion. On the one hand, the Ruist (Confucian) philosopher Xunzi championed a  comprehensive and coercive ethical, political, and social system or Way (dào 道) that he believed would lead to social order and moral cultivation while opposing people’s xìng.  On the other hand, the authors of roughly books 8-10 of Zhuangzi, the primitivists, criticized a Way bearing a striking resemblance to Xunzi’s on the grounds that it  seriously harms people by opposing their xìng. I argue that the primitivists offer compelling reasons for Xunzi to modify his own Way regarding its relationship with xìng, though their own proposed alternative Way is not very attractive. I conclude with a brief discussion of one primitivist-inspired alternative view found in the Lü Shi Chun Qiu, which plausibly suggests that one way of respecting people’s xìng is by offering them opportunities to explore their natural abilities.



More Updates

I have added a Translations page in the Projects page and as a menu item under “Projects” above. I have also moved the previous content of the Projects page to a new Research page.

Making this addition is a bit of an experiment: good, published translations of the texts I’ll be working throughout my career with are in a bit of limbo right now: they’re becoming more common, but still having free, online versions is a good thing. I will both 1) add new translations as I finish them, and 2) update existing translations if I come to disagree with a previous translation of mine at some point, or find a typo. The page will grow as I add more content, and I hope it will become a useful resource.

As always, if you use my translations in your own work, please cite.

Finally, I’ve trashed the “For Students” page and moved those links to the “Links” page. Perhaps the “For Students” page will return at a later date.

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.