- Response to Joanne D. Birdwhistell's Review of Rituals of the Way:The Philosophy of Xunzi
I am writing in response to Joanne D. Birdwhistell's review of my book, Rituals of the Way: The Philosophy of Xunzi (Philosophy East and West 52  [October 2002]). She criticizes my study on various grounds but rarely presents any examples, and ignores important sections of the book that do not bear out her complaints.
Birdwhistell repeatedly takes me to task for reading Xunzi out of context: "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" (p. 498); "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" (p. 499); and "Goldin takes a basically Modernist perspective, which implies that philosophical ideas exist independent of their historical and cultural contexts and that the discourse in which terms originally appeared need not necessarily be treated as a critical dimension of the ideas in question. . . . He gives the impression that he assumes the ideas in the text are somehow 'fixed,' even as he places them in a context far removed from the Chinese world" (pp. 499-500).
These strictures are puzzling, as the very purpose of chapter 1 is to place Xunzi's ideas about xing in context. The foundation is my claim that the term does not have the same meaning in Mencius and Xunzi; this leads to a discussion of the differing roles that xing serves in their respective philosophies—which in turn necessitates a study of Xunzi's concept of xin (which I translate as "mind") and the characteristics that he attributes to it, again with a consideration of various other philosophers to whom Xunzi was responding and from whom he wished to dissociate himself. Indeed, my desire to read Xunzi as a thinker of his own time should have been evident throughout Rituals of the Way—for example, in chapter 2, which tackles Xunzi's view of Heaven after a lengthy overview of omenology in the Zuozhuan, and in chapter 4, which uses the paradoxes of the Dialecticians as a foil to Xunzi's philosophy of language. But Birdwhistell never addresses my specific arguments. Since my intention was to highlight, rather than "gloss over," the relations between Xunzi's philosophy and those of his contemporaries, some concrete examples of my shortcomings in this regard might have been helpful. As the review stands, her position seems to be not that I neglected to contextualize Xunzi but that I failed to contextualize him in the fashion she approves.
Birdwhistell is demonstratively concerned with identifying and discrediting what she calls my "assumptions," but here, too, she declines to furnish specific examples: "His choice of Western thinkers offers clues about the assumptions that shaped [End Page 591] 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 interpretations or further dimensions of the ideas he is addressing" (pp. 498-499). What are these "other passages," "alternative interpretations," and "further dimensions"? Birdwhistell does not say.
Most disturbing is this comment: "And as with the Song philosophers, his assumptions, even the unstated ones, also belong to a network of beliefs that determine what constitutes meaning" (p. 499). I confess I do not understand what Birdwhistell means by my "network of beliefs," but I suppose the idea is that I am blind to other approaches because of certain unstated fideistic commitments. With this strategy, Birdwhistell exempts herself from the earnest task of reviewing a book on its own merit: once the author's "beliefs" are discovered—and declared to be objectionable—the work can promptly be dismissed.
Rather than mounting vague attacks on my beliefs and my alleged "Modernism," it would have been more constructive for Birdwhistell to explain in detail why she finds the arguments in Rituals of the Way unpersuasive. [End Page...