Xunzi on Intellectual Fixations

Many people are intellectually like fertilized eggs: one sperm manages to get in, and the egg seals off to all the others. Idealogues and fundamentalists tend to be like this, usually after reading one book at a susceptible phase in their lives; if they could be persuaded to read other books they might become less closed, but by then it is often too late. Xunzi includes this closed-mindedness in his notion of 蔽 (bì), “blinding obsession.” In his famous essay on “Dispelling 蔽,” he gives us a useful survey of some of the narrow idealogues of his period, incidentally reminding us just how fertile and varied ancient Chinese philosophy must have been before the culture was straitjacketed into a mere handful of views:

Among the itinerant philosophers of former times there were men who were obsessed; the followers of pernicious doctrines are an example. Mozi was obsessed by utilitarian considerations and did not understand the beauties of form. Songzi was obsessed by the need to lessen desires, for he did not understand how they could be satisfied. Shenzi was obsessed with the concept of law and did not understand the part to be played by worthy men. Shen Buhai was obsessed by the power of circumstance and did not understand the role of human intelligence. Huizi was obsessed by words and did not understand the truth that lies behind them. Zhuangzi was obsessed by thoughts of Heaven [i.e., Nature] and did not understand the importance of man. He who thinks only of utilitarian concerns will take the Way to be wholly a matter of material profit. He who thinks only of desires will take the Way to be wholly a matter of physical satisfaction. He who thinks only of law will take the Way to be wholly a matter of policy. He who thinks only of circumstance will take the Way to be wholly a matter of expedience. He who thinks only of words will take the Way to be wholly a matter of logic. He who thinks only of Heaven will take the Way to be wholly a matter of harmonizing with natural forces. These various doctrines comprehend only one small corner of the Way, but the true Way must embody constant principles [patterns] and be capable of embracing all changes. A single corner of it will not suffice. These men with their limited understanding saw only one corner of the Way and, failing to understand that it was only a corner, they considered it sufficient and proceeded to expound it in engaging terms. Such men bring chaos to themselves and delusion to others; if they are in a superior position, they inflict their obsessions upon their inferiors; and if an inferior position, they inflict them upon their superiors. Such are the disasters that come from obsession and a closed mind.  (Tr. Watson, 125-6)
Chinese thinkers do not often assert “You are wrong, I am right.” Instead, the tendency is to point out that the opponent is partially right but does not see the whole picture. This tendency is grounded on two insights about human thinking. 1) In matters of opinion or interpretation, people are very seldom simply right or wrong, and in any argument between two people the more fruitful and interesting approach is to wonder in what way each side might be right or wrong; only thus is there hope of attaining any kind of reconciliation, or of moving beyond head-butting towards new insights. 2) All intelligent people have some genuine insights, but the professional philosopher will want to take his own insights and have them make sense about the whole of everything. This may be why in the great systematic thinkers like Kant and Hegel there are insights of shattering profundity but also many passages of opaque scaffolding that strain to connect the real insights.

    In traditional Hindu philosophy, each “school” builds an entire philosophy of life on a narrow set of thoughts — one god, two gods, many gods, or no gods — and ends up with a detailed structure of argumentation in which all the other schools are proven wrong. The value of such extreme rationalizations for us is that we get to see all the arguments for a given position lucidly exposed, but the seeker in need of emotional reassurance and stability will want to latch onto one view to the exclusion of all else so that no doubts or disturbances can ever arise again. The Buddha, weary of all the squabbling, would consistently point out the dangers of attachment to merely “speculative” views that shed no light on the true causes of unhappiness. G.K. Chesterton describes arguing with an intellectual idealogue or fanatic — one who has meticulously thought through all the ins and outs of his position, and in his mind has worked out all the objections and counter-objections — as a bit like arguing with a madman:

If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by clarity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason. (Chesterton, Orthodoxy)

   This fixation, a chronic closing of the mind, is what Xunzi means by 蔽 (bì) here. It is more than just “having a theory,” although in each of us “having a theory” can subtly shade into being gruffly dismissive of other theories. We see this every day when proponents of different sides of a given issue cannot listen to one another without anger or derision. To Xunzi, a statesman and anybody else in a position of leadership cannot afford to be rigidly narrow like this, just because the whole — of which they have charge — is composed of people with different views in tension with one another. Even in a single family, when siblings fight about something serious, a parent cannot simply side with one child but must somehow bring each of them to understand where the others are coming from; partiality makes the greater harmony impossible. Moreover, as Xunzi notes, things change: a theory might work well today but not tomorrow,  in one situation but not in another. A wise person needs to be accurate in his understanding of different situations and supple in his response. It is not that one must have no theories about things, but that in responding to a complex, dynamic whole, experience shows us every day that no single theory will be the key to everything.


4 thoughts on “Xunzi on Intellectual Fixations”

  1. Krishnan,

    This is simply Xunzi at his best. His chapter on ‘Undoing Fixation’ is simply the jewel in the crown. Of course it should not be read in isolation with his other teachings otherwise that would itself be a ‘fixation’, when Xunzi wants our analytical decision making mind to be ‘fluid’ and ‘fercund’ – to not only be ‘objective’ but to be flexible enough to ‘think outside the box’, to take a paradigm shift if the situation or circumstances dictate, so that the answer should befit the problem and not the problem befit a set panel or pigeon holes of answers – like trying to fit in with the rites and rituals or even the Tao (especially when the Tao Te Ching says that the Tao cannot be define, if you define it, it is no longer the Tao).
    Xunzi unlike Confucius or Mencius attempted to go behind the ‘mien’ of the Tao because in his view to affix oneself with the mysterious ‘harmony’ of the Tao one must first understand what this perceived ‘constant’ or ‘harmony’ is in the Tao. In fact in this very chapter Xunzi attempts to explain how knowing the Tao is through the heart (he probably means heart-feeling as in intuitive feeling or ‘intuition’) and this heart-feeling or intuition is revealed through ’emptiness’, ‘single-mindedness’ and ‘stillness’. You will no doubt enlighten us in the future by the examples he gave of each of these 3 attributes. Most scholars (even Chinese ones) get it wrong because they focus on manner and form and not the spirit and substance. Fixation is like being static. With a pulsating heart, how can your heart have a fixed position? What is it then that is intuitive and in rhythm and harmony with every pulse of the heart? That type of dynamic fixation that is not a static fixation!
    But Zen came along to cut through this congestion of the different natures of nature and just said – the only constant or harmony in nature is ‘change’. Zen also cut through this problem that Xunzi warned about ‘fixation’ in one word – ‘Equanimity’. You cannot not blame the ancient Chinese – there was no Chinese word for ‘equanimity’ then!
    Xunzi was both a botanist and zoologist as well. He loved making example of various animals and plants. But Xunzi knew not of the chameleon. Otherwise he would have said the decision maker should be like a chameleon, changing to fit all manner of things and people. Not only that, in a chaotic world, where the harmony of the Tao means the constant of an equilibrium in an ever-changing pulsating state, then we have a chameleon ‘on the run’ having to change to fit in with the changing chaos or flux of a dynamic terrain and landscape.


    1. I agree — his point is that stillness can’t be another form of fixation, but something more like a great basketball player’s deep equanimity and awareness of everything that is happening on every inch of the court. I also love the essay on Li.


  2. Krishnan,
    Well put – “but something more like a great basketball player’s deep equanimity and awareness of everything that is happening on every inch of the court.” – and that is what Xunzi meant by emptiness, single-mindedness and stillness of the (pulsating) heart – in shooting on the run, the decision maker is engrossed in the dynamics of the problem or mission, he has lost any consciousness of an Ego of a Self let alone having the time to be affixed to the dictates of what the coach just said before the game.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s right! And since every moment brings a unique configuration, no training in repeated movements will fully address the problem at hand. One has to be free, unleashed, from all agendas.


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