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  • Enabling and Constraining Classical Confucian Political Philosophy
  • Ellie Hua Wang (bio)
Theorizing Confucian Virtue Politics: The Political Philosophy of Mencius and Xunzi. By Sungmoon Kim. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

It is always a delight to see contemporary engagement with the rich insights of Mencius and Xunzi. In the case of Sungmoon Kim’s thoughtful and ambitious book, this delight is further accompanied by a feeling of confidence about future possibilities. Indeed, the analytic style and the conceptual devices Kim adopts in his discussion and reconstruction of these two thinkers’ ideas provide us with a more focused and structured way to notice and appreciate their commonalities and differences. Moreover, he attends to the differences in the social and political contexts these two thinkers were embedded in, as well as their different views regarding human nature and moral psychology. This attention is then followed by his careful consideration of how such differences may influence the development of their respective views. This helps us achieve a more nuanced understanding of how these two thinkers responded to their time. It is from this structured appreciation and nuanced understanding of Mencius’ and Xunzi’s thought that Kim aims to derive a cogent and systematic Confucian political theory. The cross-cultural comparative work in this book also adds much insight and enriches the discussion. This is surely a project that will initiate meaningful dialogues in Chinese political philosophy, and political philosophy in general.

In this book, Kim explores in a systematic manner the contributions Mencius and Xunzi made toward the development of classical Confucian political philosophy. He first summarizes the four guiding ideas (which constitute what he calls “the paradigm of Confucian virtue politics”) that are grounded in Confucius’ own view and shared by these two thinkers: the virtue proposition, the virtue politics proposition, the moral education proposition, and the material condition proposition. He then argues that beyond this shared paradigm, they parted company and developed two different models. Kim employs four conceptual frameworks—positive and negative Confucianism, virtue and ritual Constitutionalism, moral and civil virtue, and strong and tempered virtue monism—to capture the difference [End Page 489] between these two models: Mencius’ thought is associated with virtue Constitutionalism and strong virtue monism, with a strong emphasis on moral virtue and negative Confucianism; on the other hand, Xunzi’s thought is associated with ritual Constitutionalism and tempered virtue monism, with a strong emphasis on civic virtue and positive Confucianism. Kim cautions us that these conceptual devices are often used as a heuristic, and the distinctions are not mutually exclusive.

However, the use of conceptual devices always comes at a risk. As Daoists have reminded us, any naming or distinction made splits or harms the object, or at least affects the way we perceive the object. As mentioned earlier, I do find the employment of conceptual devices helpful. However, when our analysis is structured in a certain way, certain material is bound to be dismissed, and other interpretations and factors may not come into view. For the purpose of a better intellectual understanding, the employment of conceptual devices seems a necessary evil, but it should always be remembered that these devices are enabling and constraining at the same time. Clearly Kim is aware of this risk when he puts in the cautionary notes. What I want to do in this commentary is to examine whether we can do more to further reduce the risk.

Since, as Kim points out, Mencius and Xunzi share the “paradigm of Confucian virtue politics,” one may ask: why does Kim reconstruct the political thought of each as two different models? It is true that they have different views about human nature, and they respond to different political contexts. However, one may wonder whether these factors really lead their political thought in different directions. Are their different emphases really so pronounced that one cannot treat them as a continuous whole? Given the limitation of space, I will focus on one conceptual framework Kim employs: positive and negative Confucianism. I will also make brief comments regarding moral and civic virtues, the issue of abdication, and the distinction between a true king and a hegemon (wang 王 vs. ba 霸), and the relation between a...


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pp. 489-497
Launched on MUSE
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