Xunzi Among the Chinese Neo-Confucians

Part of the Dao Companions to Chinese Philosophy book series (DCCP, volume 7)


This chapter explains how Xunzi’s text and views helped shape the thought of the Neo-Confucian philosophers, noting and explicating some areas of influence long overlooked in modern scholarship. It begins with a general overview of Xunzi’s changing position in the tradition (“Xunzi’s Status in Neo-Confucian Thought”), in which I discuss Xunzi’s status in three general periods of Neo-Confucian era: the early period, in which Neo-Confucian views of Xunzi were varied and somewhat ambiguous, the “mature” period, in which a broad consensus formed and then became orthodoxy for several centuries, and a late and often overlooked reassessment of Xunzi that took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the second section (“Debating Human Nature on Xunzi’s Terms”), I discuss in greater detail Neo-Confucian criticisms of Xunzi’s views on human nature, noting that in key respects the Neo-Confucians accepted Xunzi’s somewhat uncharitable characterization of the doctrine that human nature is good, thereby taking on a considerably greater burden of proof than necessary. In the third section (“Virtue without Roots”), I attempt to explicate what is perhaps the most prominent but also the most laconic Neo-Confucian criticism of Xunzi, which is that Xunzi misunderstands the “great root” or “great foundation” of cosmic and social order, finding it in conventional human relationships rather than in the deeper, purer and more powerful inner workings of human nature. In the final section (“The Accretional Theory of Knowledge Acquisition”), I explain how the major differences between Xunzi and his Neo-Confucian critics can be cast as a dispute about how moral knowledge is acquired, where Xunzi’s critics assume that acquiring moral knowledge of any meaningful kind is impossible without a natural base or foundation of moral knowledge to begin with.


Human Nature Moral Knowledge Moral Psychology Great Root Epistemic Virtue 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



I am indebted to Eric Hutton, Philip J. Ivanhoe, <Emphasis Type=”SmallCaps”>Xie</Emphasis> Xiaodong 謝曉東 and a generous anonymous reviewer for extensive and stimulating comments on earlier drafts of this chapter.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophySan Francisco State UniversitySan FranciscoUSA

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