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  • Rituals of the Way: The Philosophy of Xunzi
  • Joanne D. Birdwhistell
Rituals of the Way: The Philosophy of Xunzi. By Paul Rakita Goldin. Chicago and La Salle: Open Court, 1999. Pp. 198.

This slender volume on the Xunzi tantalizes the reader with brief excursions into four of the philosophical areas for which Xunzi is best known. Titled "Self-Cultivation and the Mind," "Heaven," "Ritual and Music," and "Language and the Way," the four chapters of text are supplemented by a preface, an introduction, copious and informative endnotes—many of which offer comparative material—a bibliography, and two indexes.

Goldin emphasizes that his is a study of the text called Xunzi, not the philosopher Xunzi, for very little is actually known about Xun Kuang himself. Still, throughout this study Goldin blurs this distinction by referring to the man Xunzi, by giving him human, rather than textual, attributes. What Goldin means by a study of the text is neither an examination of the text's history nor an extensive investigation into either philological issues or the history of key philosophical terms. Rather, it refers to his approach of considering certain passages and ideas without necessary reference to their historical and cultural contexts. Goldin interprets ideas from the perspective of his best judgment as to their meaning; it is a task of what he calls a "Herculean commentator" (p. xv). The result is a highly personal set of reflections on, and interpretations of, selected ideas from the Xunzi.

What Goldin offers here is a commentary on the text, and although he writes in the late twentieth century, his style has certain characteristics in common with that of traditional Chinese commentaries. But while Chinese commentators of the past generally offered explanations of particular terms or words, Goldin takes a somewhat broader view, focusing on ideas and selected passages. Issues concerning the relationships between terms and ideas do not receive special attention, however. Goldin's presentation of ideas has similarities with those types of twentieth-century Chinese scholarship that are formatted in the style of statement and quotation, where an author makes a few brief remarks on a topic and then quotes a passage from the text expressing that idea. Goldin takes a similar approach: he makes a comment, ranging from several sentences to several paragraphs, and then quotes the relevant text passage. He presents the passage first in Chinese and then in English translation. Citations are taken not only from the Xunzi but from various Chinese texts, including the Mengzi and the Zhuangzi—and Goldin quotes Western writers, too, such as Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Tindal, and the contemporary J. L. Mackie. Much of this study thus consists of quotations.

Goldin's wide-ranging scholarly knowledge is displayed in the endnotes, and his choice of Western thinkers offers clues about the assumptions that shaped this study. Goldin rarely provides justification for the selection of passages to which he draws attention, and he does not mention other passages that might suggest alternative [End Page 498] interpretations or further dimensions of the ideas that he is addressing. Certain terms, both in Chinese and English, seem to call for philosophical probing that would indicate the nuances and complexities in the ideas that these terms represent, but generally they are treated as unproblematic. For instance, one such term is "law of nature," and another is xin (mind, heart, mind-heart), which Goldin most often (but not always) translates as mind, even when speaking about emotions. Although he periodically notes that certain terms were understood in different ways by different philosophers, his actual discussion glosses over significant differences in what particular philosophers were talking about, the assumptions they were making, and the issues they were addressing.

In chapter 1,' 'Self-Cultivation and the Mind," Goldin provides an overview of how scholars have often compared Mencius and Xunzi, and he concludes that Mencius saw morality as based inside the self, where as Xunzi saw it as coming from outside. In addition, he points out that Xunzi had a quite different worldview from Mencius. Goldin begins the second chapter,' 'Heaven," with views of Heaven found in various texts, including the Book of Documents, the Analects, the Zhuangzi, and the Xunzi, and goes...