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Virtue, Nature, and Moral Agency in the Xunzi (review)

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 51, Number 3, July 2001
pp. 434-440 | 10.1353/pew.2001.0041

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Reviewed by
Virtue, Nature, and Moral Agency in the Xunzi. Edited, with introduction, by T. C. Kline III and Philip J. Ivanhoe. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000. Pp. xvii + 268.

Virtue, Nature, and Moral Agency in the Xunzi, edited by T. C. Kline III and Philip J. Ivanhoe, is an anthology that has much to recommend it. It brings together several seminal papers on Xunzi by established and distinguished scholars of Chinese philosophy, such as Antonio S. Cua, D. C. Lau, David S. Nivison, and Henry Rosemont, Jr. It also includes contributions from relative newcomers, who focused their dissertations on Xunzi's philosophy, namely T. C. Kline III and Eric Hutton. While most of these essays have been previously published, some appear in print for the first time in this volume. There is also a succinct introduction, name and subject indexes, and a targeted bibliography, which may serve as a reading list for those interested in supplementing their study of Xunzi. Another nicety is that references to passages in the Xunzi in older articles have been updated to include John Knoblock's translation1 as well as A Concordance to the Xunzi,2 and romanizations have been standardized to pinyin. [End Page 434]

For the most part, the title Virtue, Nature, and Moral Agency in the Xunzi accurately represents the most prominent subject matter of the book. However, by "nature" what is meant is apparently "human nature," if that is an adequate translation for the concept Xunzi designates with the character xinginline graphic. Xunzi's view of tianinline graphic (the propensities of nature, the heavens) is not prominently discussed.3 Most of the essays, chapters 4 through 11 (the final chapter), deal extensively if not primarily with understanding Xunzi's conception of human nature. Chapters 5 through 7 are tied even closer together under the theme of moral agency (more on their connection below). Virtue is the topic of chapter 3 and plays a role in chapters 4 and 7.

Although the first two chapters seem not to fall neatly within these categories, Henry Rosemont, Jr.'s contribution, "State and Society in the Xunzi: A Philosophical Commentary," seems an appropriate choice for the lead chapter of this collection. A sweeping polemic in defense of Xunzi's political philosophy, this seminal essay demonstrates the philosophical strength and potential relevance of Xunzi's thought. Specifically, Rosemont argues that Xunzi's political system is no less "reasonable" than democracy, and that while Xunzi advocates what Karl Popper would call a "closed society," Xunzi's system is defensible against Popper's critique of such societies.4

The second chapter, "Ethical Uses of the Past in Early Confucianism: The Case of Xunzi," is authored by Antonio S. Cua, who has been a consistent contributor to the understanding of Xunzi's philosophy for more than twenty years. A collection of essays on Xunzi would be incomplete without Cua's work being represented. However, given the themes of the book, it is not entirely clear why this particular piece was selected. While Cua has written on both human nature and virtue in the Xunzi, this essay only tangentially addresses the theme of virtue. Nevertheless, it exemplifies the kind of careful scholarship characteristic of Cua's work, and there is something to be said for an anthology like this to exhibit breadth as well as focus. In his contribution, Cua analyzes Xunzi's appeal to history in terms of its "pedagogical function," "rhetorical function," "elucidative function," and "evaluative function."

In chapter 3, "Virtues in Xunzi's Thought," Jonathan W. Schofer offers a lucid depiction of Xunzi's moral theory as a kind of virtue theory, despite the lack of any systematic analysis on Xunzi's part of a specific set of virtues. He then suggests that, given Xunzi's theory and goals, the omission of any analysis of specific virtues may have been deliberate.

The last eight chapters deal extensively with the issue of human nature. Chapter 4, "Xunzi: Morality as Psychological Constraint," by Joel J. Kupperman, compares Xunzi's and Mencius' conceptions of human nature. Kupperman argues that, unlike Mencius, Xunzi does not really have a "view of human nature" in the sense of humans having any...