Chinese philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G001-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 18, 2019, from

7. Xunxi and rationalized Confucianism

A decisive figure in both the emergence and ultimate decline of rationalism in early China was the Confucian philosopher Xunzi. Xunzi is often touted as the most ‘rationalistic’ of the classical Confucians, and in one sense he deserves to be so described. However, because his so-called rationalism is grounded in history and culture without appeal to metaphysical, grammatical or sociological determinants, he is rationalistic in a rather Pickwickian sense. Xunzi’s project does not illustrate a development of the incipient rationalism of the later Mohists and the School of Names. His is a distinctly historicist programme – and a historicist rationalism is, strictly speaking, oxymoronic. Thus in an analysis of argumentation in Xunzi, one must distinguish Xunzi’s concrete, historical rationality from notions of abstract and impersonal reason familiar in classical Western metaphysical thinking.

There is, in spite of many similarities, also a fundamental difference between Xunzi’s rationality and the peculiar kind of reasoning which grounds the later Mohist Canons. The rationality shared by Xunzi and the later Mohists is based upon their nominalist stances. However, the almost total congruence between the later Mohists and Xunzi on the nature of language and logic, which among other things allows Xunzi to utilize most of the technical vocabulary of the Mohist disputers, must be qualified by the fact that Mohist nominalism shares with physicalist nominalism of the Western tradition the importance of logical (and causal) necessity (see Nominalism). For the Mohists, necessity (bi) is what is ‘unending’ (bu yi ye), a condition of logical and scientific disputation which is invulnerable to time. Thus, even though the later Mohist has no explicit metaphysical theory, there is a belief that the world is comprised by concrete particulars with necessary logical relations one to the other (see Mohist philosophy).

By contrast, there are no metaphysical, linguistic or behaviourial determinants to be found in Xunzi. Rationality for Xunzi is formed dialectically amid cultural, social and natural forces, both shaping and being shaped by them. Valid reasoning is the discovery and articulation of appropriate and efficacious historical instances of reasonableness. ‘Reasoning’ (li) and historical analogy are inseparable (see Li). On the one hand, li – the mapping out of patterns – can only operate on the basis of assumed classifications (lei); at the same time, it is the ‘mapping’ operation of li, including and excluding on the basis of perceived similarities and differences, that establishes classifications (lei) in the first place.

Xunzi’s nominalism must be understood, much as that of the Greek Sophists, as a tropic rather than a metaphysical device. Nominalism of the ‘rhetorical’ as opposed to the ‘logical’ or ‘atomistic’ variety does not arise from a conviction that universals do not exist, or that there are no abstract entities, or that there are no such things as non-individuals. Xunzi’s rhetorical or linguistic nominalism is essentially an anti-metaphysical and an anti-logical methodology that is quite similar to the sophistic nominalisms of many of the early Greek rhetoricians.

Though Mencius was later to emerge in the Chinese tradition as the most prominent of Confucius’s interpreters, it was Xunzi’s ritual-centred Confucianism that held sway in the formative years of Confucianism as a state ideology. This was emphatically the case during the first century of the Han dynasty and the founding of empire. The institutionalization of academic positions which the Han dynasty inherited from the Qin helped to perpetuate and galvanize the influence of Xunzi. Several of Xunzi’s immediate students were responsible for the transmission of specific classics which comprised the Confucian curriculum, including the Guliang Commentary to the Spring and Autumn Annals and the Zuozhuan historical narrative. Even the ‘Mao’ orthodox version of the Book of Songs was named for a lineage of Xunzi disciples. The preface to Xunzi’s collected works written two hundred years after his death by the court bibliographer Liu Xiang (79–8 bc), reported that Lanling, still under the influence of Xunzi, continued to produce fine scholars.

Perhaps Xunzi’s greatest and most enduring influence came from the extent to which he continued Confucius’ emphasis on ritual practice as an instrument for socializing, enculturating and humanizing the Chinese world. His description of the function of ritual in society is cited extensively in the histories and the many canons of ritual that were compiled during this period, and looms large in the syncretic philosophical literature that was to become the signature of the Han. The Huainanzi, for example, is by and large a text representing a variety of often conflicting philosophical positions, but the crown of this Han dynasty work is its final chapter, the ‘Greatest Clan’ (taizu), which develops a philosophical position in many aspects reminiscent of Xunzi, especially with respect to the importance of ritual and learning (see Huainanzi).

It can be argued that Xunzi, by co-opting the philosophic concerns of the early rationalists for the emerging Confucian program, made the formal continuation of these competing schools redundant. Put another way, the nascent rationalism which was emerging in those thinkers interested in argument for its own sake was overwhelmed by the conventionalist rationalism of Xunzi and the large following he attracted in the early years of the Han dynasty. The signature of the Confucian sense of order that persists far beyond the temporal borders of the Han dynasty is typified by Xunzi’s ritually constituted community, a movement from contesting diversity to an absorbent and inclusive harmony. The emergence of what we might call ‘Han’ thinking in this period had a determinative effect on the style which Chinese philosophy was to assume throughout its long history.

Citing this article:
Hall, David L. and Roger T. Ames. Xunxi and rationalized Confucianism. Chinese philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G001-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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