Static vs. Dynamic Xing (性)

I’ve been looking at the chapters on Huang Kan’s (488-545 CE) Lunyu yishu (論語義疏) in John Makeham’s book “Transmitters and Creators”, and have been thinking a bit about the views Huang presents on xing 性 (“human nature”), and their similarity to some of what Wang Chong says about xing (by the way–a brief plug–my article on Wang’s reading of the Analects in the Lunheng is going to appear in this December’s Journal of Chinese Philosophy–check it out). More specifically, I have been wondering whether the Huang/Wang view of xing gives us a notion of xing as malleable. Wang’s view certainly seems to be that xing is malleable, but it is not so clear we should attribute this view to Huang. The main reason I am interested in this distinction is that it can help us to discover how a theory of mind subtly formed in the Confucian tradition, not all at once, but over a long period. Part of the formation of a theory of mind (one suitable to support an Aristotelian virtue ethical apparatus) in the tradition seems to have been this movement from a dynamic view of xing to a static view of a xing which supports a number of dynamic properties. We see the latter view in Huang Kan.

Because of the static view of xing Huang adopted, he held that xing could not be characterized as good or bad in itself, but was rather prior to moral value. The acts (or what Makeham calls “emotional responses”) that are shaped, or “completed” (cheng 成) through environmental factors are what possess moral value, not the xing from which these actions in part arise. Huang is also thus able to hold a view which makes sense of what seem the obvious situationist leanings of certain passages of the Analects like 4.1:

里仁為美。擇不處仁﹐焉得知? “To be in (or live in) the midst of ren is wonderful. If one cannot remain in (the midst of) ren, how can one obtain knowledge? (note–I’m not completely satisfied with this translation, but it will do for my purposes here.)

Huang takes 4.1 to be a situationist statement about those whose xing is ordinary or middle grade. He says of 4.1:

This chapter shows that it is in the nature of ordinary people to be readily susceptible to influences. When they encounter what is good, they rise; when they meet with what is wrong, they fall. Hence, it is appropriate that one should be careful about where one lives, making sure to select a neighborhood in which humane (ren) people reside.” (Makeham translation, p. 103 “Transmitters and Creators”)

Thus, one may have a xing of middle grade, that of an ordinary person rather than a sage, and yet by putting oneself in the right situations, produce actions similar to those that would be produced by the sage, or the person who is ren (leave aside my worries about taking ren to be a property of individuals for the moment). One result of this is that one’s xing does not have to be malleable in order for there to be the possibility of moral development–cultivation of character relies on external factors as well as inherent properties of individuals.

There are subtle differences between this view and that of Wang Chong. Although Wang and Huang do agree, as Makeham points out, that xing is only one factor in moral development, and that external factors play a much larger role in the determination of one’s actions, they disagree on a key point–Wang takes xing to be malleable, and holds that xing can be good or bad at different times (echoing to an extent Dong Zhongshu and Yang Xiong). Ideally, we can control the extent to which it is good or bad, and this makes moral self-cultivation possible.

The move from this popular Han dynasty view to that of Huang, where xing becomes more “substantial”, may be a key move in the construction of a theory of mind in the tradition, which, along with apparatus from Buddhism (which also certainly had some influence on Huang!), led to the eventual ascendant psychologism of Zhu Xi, through which much of the contemporary understanding of Confucius is filtered.

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