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.

Why a Sage Asks Questions

When the Master went into the Great Ancestral Temple, he asked questions about everything that took place. 
   Someone said, “Who said that this son of a man from Zou understands ritual? When he went into the Great Ancestral Temple, he had to ask questions about everything.
   When this comment was reported to the Master, his reply was, “This asking is, in fact, part of the ritual.” (Analects, 3.15, tr.Slingerland)

Ancient paintings of Confucius like to show him lecturing from a podium, but in fact Confucius in the Analects does not “teach.” He has conversations with people, and the Analects are mostly obiter dicta that his interlocutors remembered and cherished. The quality of his mind and character radiated in every fleeting interaction; there was no need for “teachings” or treatises. Eastern traditions have a tendency to turn their founders into omniscient gurus with super-powers, but Confucius was always steadfast in his belief in the goodness of character attainable by ordinary human beings in ordinary lives, and made a point of his lack of omniscience. Since even the wisest human being has things to learn, the fundamental activity of human life has to be questioning. 

   Tradition has interpreted the Analect above to imply that Confucius really knew the answers but was asking ceremonial questions, or he was asking in order to criticize the rulers of Lu’s misunderstanding of the sacrifice. These interpretations — coming from the assumption of omniscience — are not impossible, but is it not equally likely that Confucius was sincerely interested and asking genuine questions? The word Li, translated “ritual,” encompasses not only civic and religious ceremonies, but also all acts of propriety that govern everyday life, such as handshakes and greetings. Moreover, “ritual” includes the sensibility underlying all of this, which is permeated by deep respect for the sacred in everyday relationships. To presume that one does not need to ask questions would be arrogance that goes against the very essence of ritual. Confucius describes himself as one who “knows what he does not know,” and such a person will naturally ask questions. The questioning emanates from wisdom, self-knowledge, sincerity, and desire to understand. In this way, Confucius is an exemplary human being.

The Master said, “Do I possess wisdom? No, I do not. A common fellow asked a question of me, and I came up completely empty. But I discussed the problem with him from beginning to end until we finally got to the bottom of it.” (9.8)


The Master said, “I will not open the door for a mind that is not already striving to understand, nor will I provide words to a tongue that is not already struggling to speak. If I hold up one corner of a problem, and the student cannot come back to me with the other three, I will not attempt to instruct him again.”    (Confucius, Analects 7.8, tr. Slingerland)

All of the ancient teachers followed this principle, and probably all real teachers everywhere. They know that knowledge is not something that can be “spread,” and that people only learn what they think for themselves. The genuine student, the one who seriously wants to learn and is receptive, strives to understand and struggles to speak. The opposite of glib, and holding high standards of clarity, a student is only too aware of how difficult it is to find the right words for things that matter. A real teacher will perceive the struggle and love the student for it.

   Every pre-18th century thinker that I have read holds up one corner and expects us — sometimes teases and provokes us — to find others. Perhaps one misleading thing in every translation of this Analect is the translator’s insertion of the article “the” when it is absent in the original. “The other three” makes it sound as if the teacher wants the student to tell him what he is hiding in his pocket. This may look attractive to a mind in search of an omniscient guru, but it turns teaching into a trivial game. In fact, serious teachers are also model learners, and more aware than anyone else of what they do not know in the face of fathomless reality. Thus, they delight in being surprised by the student, and take joy whenever the student discovers something the teacher did not know.  They show one corner and want the student to find three more. Delight in teaching is really the same as delight in learning; each spills out of the other.

Voices from Antiquity

They speak to us across two thousand years, and we still listen: Confucius, Laozi, Zhuangzi, Gautama, Nagarjuna, Heraclitus, Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and many others. Even across oceans and through translations, somehow their voices still sound clear and distinctive, and they still have the power to get us to see things and understand ourselves a little better. Their words deserve and repay continued mulling. Even — perhaps especially — after many readings, they are able to surprise and instruct us. This is why they grow better as we age, and why readers of each century find new layers to the old books.

In this blog, I’ll be posting one or two sentences of ancient wisdom a few times a week. They wIll be somewhat more demanding than “ancient memes,” and they will be actual selections from the books and not quotations made up by one of our contemporaries to sound like something the Buddha or Plato might have said. They will be sentences that resonate through my day, and I hope they will be richly resonant for you too. I will say a few words about why the day’s sentences have moved me to share them with you — and above all, I will keep it brief! Your thoughts and comments, if you have time to write any, will always be appreciated. At the very least I hope that these pages will turn out to be a useful anthology of wonderful passages.

Today — March 30, 2017 — I have been re-reading Confucius…