- Political Theory and Classical Confucianism: A Reply to Wang, Back, Tiwald, and Ames
Theorizing Confucian Virtue Politics: The Political Philosophy of Mencius and Xunzi aims to provide a holistic account of Mencius’ and Xunzi’s political thought by reconstructing their political ideas into coherent political theories in a way that is intelligible and interesting to contemporary readers, while paying close attention to the Warring States circumstances in which Mencius and Xunzi found themselves. As a political theorist, part of my motivation in writing this book was to initiate a vigorous philosophical conversation with the students of Chinese philosophy (narrowly defined), to whom I owe tremendous intellectual debt, by encouraging them to revisit Mencius’ and Xunzi’s political thought in light of several novel theoretical frameworks and see what new insights, if any, we can glean from this. My initial modest hope was that responses from the scholars versed in ancient [End Page 527] Chinese texts, philosophically as well as philologically, could help me further enhance my understanding of classical Confucianism. The four commentaries presented in this symposium offer me the kinds of critical yet constructive engagements that I had anticipated, and I am deeply grateful to all commentators for their insights.
Reply to Wang and Back
Wang’s key question is whether it is plausible to see Mencius and Xunzi as having developed two distinct modes of Confucian virtue politics. Her view is that it is an overstatement that their differences are “so pronounced that one cannot treat them as a continuous whole.” Interestingly, Wang’s observation is in marked contrast to Back’s, which states that “Kim argues that Xunzi’s positive Confucianism is a further articulation of the nascent insight in Mencius’ thought.” So, it seems imperative to be clear from the outset about where the purpose of my book lies.
The argument that Mencius and Xunzi developed distinct models of Confucian virtue politics is not incompatible with the view that there is significant continuity between their political thought. In fact, one of my core arguments throughout the book is that much of Xunzi’s political theory was seemingly motivated to rearticulate or address the questions with which Mencius struggled in a more systematic fashion. As the ardent followers of Confucius, they both maneuvered within what I call “the paradigm of Confucian virtue politics,” and therefore it is only natural to find that they have much in common. Indeed, many contemporary scholars who under-stand Confucian ethics as a form of virtue ethics have forcefully claimed that as virtue ethicists there is virtually no qualitative difference between Mencius and Xunzi as far as their visions of the ideal man and politics are concerned, their different (even contrasting) accounts of human nature and moral self-cultivation notwithstanding. In the book, however, I challenge this conventional view, without taking issue with the continuity between ethics and politics in Confucianism, by drawing attention to the significant differences in the way in which they envisioned Confucian virtue politics with differing emphasis between virtue and ritual institutions, between moral virtue and civic virtue, and between positive and negative dimensions of Confucian politics. Put differently, the central premise of this book is that there is an important connection between Mencius’ and Xunzi’s contrasting accounts of human nature and their visions of politics, despite their shared commitment to the Kingly Way.
Wang raises several specific questions. First, she finds my understanding of Mencius in relation to positive Confucianism unsatisfying because, in her view, Mencius has a more robust argument to make in favor of positive Confucianism than my interpretation allows. According to Wang, my interpretation of Mencius in his dialogue with King Xuan of Qi in Mencius [End Page 528] 1B4 regarding the Snow Palace,1 which highlights the extension of the ruler’s private interest to the people, lacks textual support. Instead, she claims that “what Mencius does is more like ‘correcting’ or ‘redirecting’ the ruler’s way of thinking, so that he can see how he may really get what he wants.” That is, on Wang’s interpretation, the gist of Mencius’ instruction to King Xuan is that in order to secure his private interest, which is to become...