A Ku Indeed!

Xunzi: Yi, E and Xing

Posted in Chinese Philosophy, Ethics, Mencius, virtue ethics, Xunzi by Chris on August 20, 2008

Trying to make sense of what Xunzi’s philosophy on the whole means can run into some pretty basic difficulties, at least in my less than knowledgeable (when it comes to Xunzi) case. The reason for this stems from a difficulty in making clear what Xunzi is up to at the most fundamental level. It’s tough to attempt more sophisticated readings of finer points when the more basic and general points are still unclear. One of them concerns Xunzi’s take on xing (human nature), whether it is bad (e) and whether yi (duty, righteousness, appropriateness) is innate. The problem: if yi is innate, it seems that xing is not e, and that puts him in bed with Mencius, a person Xunzi doesn’t want to be sleeping with.

I suppose the problem begins here, in Xunzi (9/327)

Water and fire have qi but are without life. Grasses and trees have life but are without awareness. Birds and beasts are have awareness but are without yi. Humans have qi and life and awareness, and moreover they have yi. And so they are the most precious things under heaven.

Reading this passage in what appears the most natural way, Yi appears to be innate, or at least (perhaps in a weaker way that I’ll note in a minute) “part of what it means to be human”. In each case, Xunzi seems to be giving what are the essential qualities of each category of being. Elements have qi, and that’s it. Plants (animate forms) have what elements have (seems implicit, qi) but have life in addition. However, they lack awareness (no consciousness), which is what separates them from beasts. Further, beasts have awareness but no Yi, which humans alone have (in addition to all the other qualities).

So is Yi innate? One quick way around claiming this is to suggest that Xunzi is talking about “human nature” but not in the sense of talking about the nature of human beings qua biological species. Instead, he could mean that those things that look like human beings, but lack Yi, are really just human-shaped animals (having just awareness). Being human, in this sense, would mean moving a further step by living in communities that adopt social differentiation, and that part and parcel of such living means possessing the sense of Yi that corresponds to social divisions. By this approach, Yi would be “innate” but not in a sense that would mean putting Xunzi in bed with Mencius (who seems to want the duan to apply to individuals as biological kinds). It would mean that for human beings qua social beings, yi is “innate”.

But maybe Xunzi doesn’t mean that. Maybe he really does mean that Yi belongs to individuals qua biological species (or at least to “relatively developed biological individuals belonging to that species”). If so, we’re back to what might be called the Mencian problem, namely that Xunzi would then seem to be saying that xing’shan (human nature is good) as opposed to xing’e (human nature is bad). Obviously Xunzi doesn’t want to say this, because that’s part of the main way that he differentiates himself from Mencius. Specifically, Xunzi denies that we have an innate moral sense (as individuals of a biological kind).

In fact, the xing’shan thesis in Xunzi (when attached to humans as biological kinds) runs up against a lot of textual problems, especially in chapter 20, the “human nature is bad” chapter. There, Xunzi says:

Someone asks: if people’s nature is bad, then from what are ritual and yi produced? In every case, ritual and yi are produced from the deliberate effort of the sage. (20/92)


Now people’s nature is originally without ritual and yi. (20/144)

One way out of this textual problem is to pull a move similar to the one that Nivison tries; namely, reading Xunzi as equivocating between two senses of “yi”. The first (call it Yi-1) would mean “non-moral disposition towards the recognition of duty” and the second (call it Yi-2) being “the moral content of what duty is”. in the first passage quoted, Xunzi would mean Yi-1, in the last two, Yi-2. In this way, Xunzi can say that humans, qua biological kinds, have Yi-1, but not Yi-2, as Yi-2 is the result of the deliberate efforts of the sages. So what we would start off with (Yi-1) is an appreciation of or a responsiveness to what seems to us to be duty (which does indeed appear absent in animals) but Xunzi could thus make this claim in a way that doesn’t put him in bed with Mencius by claiming xing’shan, since in this case Yi-1 has no moral content, which is really the claim that Mencius makes with the xing’shan thesis.

I’m not prepared to argue for it here, but let’s assume Nivison’s strategy is right (I’ll admit that I lean towards it myself), although I’d be curious to hear why people would differ with his reading here). However, for me, what seems confusing is that even if we accept Nivison’s reading, I am left wondering what this innate capacity (Yi-1) takes as its targets initially, and how it does so, given the natural resources Xunzi allows. I suppose my problem is that I have a hard time imagining Yi-1 alone by itself, a totally blank capacity to recognize or appreciate duty.

So how do we make sense of an innate Yi-1 in a way that doesn’t make it a fully-bodied Yi-2? One path, I think, might start from the claim that Xunzi says that humans have the unique ability to draw distinctions. Admittedly, I am not entirely sure what this should mean. Clearly animals can distinguish one thing from another (food there, not here, or danger there, safe here, or whatever). But duty, or the ability to sense what is right, or perhaps noble, relies on a different sense of distinction, namely one that sets up “ought” categories. So, one might say that this ought to be that, or whatever, and then Yi would attach to those distinctions; when this is not as it ought to be, it is bu-yi.

Now we don’t want to say, I don’t think, that yi having content at all is parasitic on the existence of li, in the sense that we come to see things as yi or bu-yi in accordance with whether those things accord with social li — not if we’re talking about humans as having yi as biological individuals. If we went with the first reading (that yi belongs to humans qua social creatures, then we could make the emergence of yi correspond to li, I think). If we stick with the biological reading, we need non-li oriented ought-distinctions. Of course, the next question, which I don’t want to address here, would be how Xunzi would propose that we move from those initial ought-distinctions to morality of the kind he is interested in.

One thought that runs through my mind — one that I am not sure I can locate in the text — is that it would be interesting if Xunzi implied that the making of distinctions required, or at least comes along with, self-consciousness. Animals, with just awareness, would lack this ability. My (very) speculative thought is this: it would be interesting if Xunzi thought that humans, qua biological creatures (reasonably self-developed), had the ability to form at least initial self-concepts of what they were. This ability to create a self-concept would come alongside the ability to recognize that one’s actions do not always accord with that self-concept (perhaps a very rudimentary version of Frankfurt-like thinking about identifying or not identifying with aspects of one’s self), thus pointing to an emergent distinction to be recognized: that one does not always act in accord with who one thinks one is. If the self-concept is “idealized” then we would have the basis for an initial content for Yi, even if it is not the kind of robust content in Yi-2 (perhaps a “proto Yi-2, or Yi-3). This for of duty to self would be a very thin notion of “content of Yi.”

Such a reading could then be used as a bridging notion for understanding how we can move from this notion of Yi-3 to robust morality (Yi-2) in the full-blown sense that Xunzi wants. Namely, the sage kings would need a way to convince the people that a given framework was proper for fully understanding their own self-concepts (namely, the li). Thus, the Li would function to allow people to feel a sense of duty towards acting in certain ways in order to maintain a sense of consistent action in accord with self-concept (which is what Yi-3 is about).

Probably not supportable, or at least quickly defeated, but it’s been running through my mind as I await the coming of the new addition to the human biological species, with or without innate Yi.


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