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  • The Philosophy of Xunzi: A Reconstruction
  • Andrew Lambert (bio)
Kurtis Hagen . The Philosophy of Xunzi: A Reconstruction. Peru, IL: Open Court Publishing, 2007. xiv, 176 pp. Paperback $34.95, ISBN 0-8126-9597-8.

Kurtis Hagen's book The Philosophy of Xunzi is a contribution to a growing area of Chinese philosophy, one that addresses the question of how to make sense of the classic text of Xunzi. The central issue of Hagen's work concerns which broad interpretative framework and background assumptions produce the most coherent interpretation of the text's key concepts. As Hagen himself puts it, he seeks to "directly challenge the interpretations of a number of scholars regarding Xunzi's fundamental worldview" (p. x).

The dispute to which Hagen's scholarship is addressed might be summed up as follows. On one hand, thinkers such as Paul Goldin and Chad Hansen understand the Xunzi as claiming that there is one privileged way to order the world, and that this is the way (dao) that was identified by ancient sage-kings and embodied in the rituals they engendered. Hagen labels such interpretations "realist." A line from Robert Eno's book The Confucian Creation of Heaven, cited by Hagen, sums up one formulation of this view:

The world is pictured as a series of objects that are naturally ordered into sets on the basis of sameness and difference. Man is innately equipped to distinguish these two primal qualities.

(p. 42)

Hagen also attributes this view of Xunzi's work (with various modifications) to scholars such as A. C. Graham (p. 42) and John Knoblock (p. 41). In this view, the [End Page 107] sage figure in pre-Qin thought is one who has "a uniquely correct conception of reality, both physical and moral" (p. 17).

On the opposite side of the debate is the view that dao refers to a useful and relevant social code, one which guides society and yields useful distinctions, but which is always a tentative account of how to order society. New events and new knowledge imply a revision to the content of dao, not the need to reassert some ancient and privileged order.

Hagen intends to show that Xunzi can be understood not as an authoritarian—exceedingly committed to traditional forms of social life and fixed normative standards—but as a pragmatist, someone who understood that the way to organize social life was contingent on the demands of the times. Hagen calls his approach "constructivist" since, as he playfully notes, it seeks to "construct constructive constructs" (p. 32) for the sake of ordering society. Hagen neatly summarizes his approach in his introduction:

I seek to establish that the text supports a different—and more reasonable—interpretation. The moral categories and roles and responsibilities that go along with them, which were articulated and put into practice by the sage kings, serve as a model for achieving the order necessary for a flourishing community. There is a significant difference, however, between saying they serve as an exemplary model, and saying they serve as an absolute standard. 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, the institutions may also change.

(p. 3)

For Hagen, the sage is someone who has "a high degree of insight into relations relevant to achieving order" (p. 28), not someone with insight into the way the world, deep down, really is.

Hagen's book attempts to articulate this constructivist position by offering carefully argued and detailed reinterpretations of the key concepts of the Xunzi. Among the characters that Hagen discusses with a view to reinterpreting them are li, lei, zhengming, li, xinge, and wei.

After laying out the opposed realist and constructivist positions in the first chapter, chapter 2 is devoted to an examination of the meaning and use of li (patterning ) and lei (categories ) in the text. Hagen acknowledges that certain passages that make use of these terms can be read...