Dao Companion to the Philosophy of Xunzi

Volume 7 of the series Dao Companions to Chinese Philosophy pp 201-227


Xunzi on Moral Psychology

  • Eric L. HuttonAffiliated withDepartment of Philosophy, University of Utah Email author 

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Among early Chinese thinkers, Xunzi offers some of the most detailed and extensive discussions of moral psychology. While much of that material appears in his remarks about people’s xing 性 (“nature”) and wei 偽 (“deliberate effort”), several other passages that do not explicitly invoke those notions are also relevant to understanding his views on moral psychology. In this chapter I focus primarily on those other passages, since Xunzi’s conceptions of xing and wei are treated extensively elsewhere in this book. In particular, I first discuss his understanding of qing 情 (“dispositions”) and yu 欲 (“desires”). The second section then analyzes Xunzi’s view of ke (“approval”), which plays an important role in his explanation of moral behavior. I review some of the controversies in the English-language scholarship about the relations between yu and ke in Xunzi’s picture of moral motivation, and I defend an interpretation on which Xunzi takes yu and ke to be independent and potentially conflicting sources of motivation that must be harmonized in order for a person to achieve sagehood. The chapter ends with a consideration of how the demand for such harmonization derives from Xunzi’s views about virtue, and notes some questions raised by his position.