Some Thoughts on Convention and Ritual in Xunzi

I recently returned from the 2012 AAR Annual Meeting, at which I was involved with two excellent panels, on Confucian Ethics (I chaired a session featuring three excellent papers by Cheryl Cottine, Aaron Stalnaker, and Michael Ing), and on Comparative Chinese-Indian thought (I presented a paper on a panel including fantastic papers by Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad, Laurie Patton, and David Lawrence).  I presented a paper on Xunzi and the Mimamsa Sutra, and have been thinking further about this paper in the last couple of days.

Let me throw a particular issue out there that I’ve been thinking about recently, related to part of what I cover in this paper.  I considered the question of the source of ritual in Xunzi, and whether we ought to see Xunzi as endorsing a conventionalist view or a realist view of ritual.  One of my contentions in the paper is that reading Xunzi in comparison with the Mimamsa Sutra and similar Indian texts might help us to answer this question, given certain structural similarities of the theory of ritual in these texts, and numerous ways Mimamsa elaborates beyond what is found in Xunzi concerning the source of ritual.  Of course, such comparative work can only ultimately be suggestive—nothing that we find in the Mimamsa Sutra, for example, will demonstrate that Xunzi held some particular view or the other.

One kind of conventionalist view would hold that any rituals performing the requisite function of limiting desires and thereby having the necessary interpersonal and intrapersonal effects are adequate.  Although the Zhou rituals are the uniquely correct ones for Xunzi’s community, there might be different rituals for different communities, etc.  This would lead to a kind of ritual pluralism.  Although my primary goal in this project is to correctly interpret Xunzi, I do think there is a deep philosophical problem with this kind of pluralism.  Lucky for me, I also think Xunzi was not a ritual conventionalist or pluralist.   One might object at this point, on grounds that the conventionalism I outline above doesn’t necessarily entail pluralism.  Couldn’t it be the case, after all, that ritual is a purely human construct, yet there are uniquely efficacious rituals for any human being?  That is, there might be a limited number of ways to sufficiently limit desire such that it leads to the proper interpersonal and intrapersonal effects.

I think there is a problem with that response.  If there is a single sufficient set of rituals for any culture, community, etc., in what way can it be said that these rituals are creations, rather than discoveries of humans?  Human action is certainly necessary to bring about ritual, but it is also necessary to bring about scientific theories, for example.  Yet scientific theories are, if correct, uniquely correct, and not so based on mere convention, but based on facts about the world making them so (or whatever relation obtains between the world and language determining truth—I don’t want to wade into that problem here).  There is certainly a conventional aspect of scientific theory (we could have used a different language of mathematics to express certain laws, different equations, etc.), but any difference in these conventions would still leave us with the same theory.  It seems to me that if one maintains a conventionalism beyond a trivial one, then one has to buy in to some kind of pluralism.  The ritual conventionalist then, if this is true, is in some sense a ritual pluralist.  We could have constructed different ritual conventions, and some other communities may have different ritual conventions, all of which are justified as long as ritual limits desire and has the relevant effects.

I won’t elaborate here on all my problems with pluralism, but in general, my biggest issue with it is that it seems to generate insoluble normative problems.  If various systems of ritual are acceptable as long as they perform the central function of ritual, what reasons can I have to adhere to this system of ritual (rather than some other acceptable system)?  It seems to me insufficient to respond that this system is the accepted system of my community, because this gives normative force to a consideration that falls outside of the realm of what makes ritual acceptable.  If the acceptability of a system of ritual is based on its ability to limit desires in a certain way, then our reasons to adhere to ritual are also thus constrained.  The purely conventional features of ritual unconnected to its performance of this function can have no normative relevance.

A realist view of ritual, some version of which I think Xunzi actually held, would take the ritual system to either be part of or be based on mind-independent features of the world.  Such a view would likely lead to absolutism about ritual—that there is one uniquely privileged or correct set of rituals (those of the Zhou, according to Xunzi).

The issue of conventionalism or lack thereof about ritual in Xunzi has been discussed widely, of course, but one interesting feature of this that can be easy to overlook is that the issue of whether Xunzi is a pluralist or absolutist about ritual depends on whether he is a conventionalist or realist concerning the source of ritual.  The absolutist view seems to follow from realism just as the pluralist view follows from conventionalism.

8 responses to “Some Thoughts on Convention and Ritual in Xunzi

  1. If there is a single sufficient set of rituals for any culture, community, etc., in what way can it be said that these rituals are creations, rather than discoveries of humans?

    I’m not seeing the difficulty here. A scientific theory or opinion is a creation; somebody has to think it up, design it, and that takes creativity. Still there can be a best scientific answer to any given question. And again, a certain material may be the best for a certain use, and that fact can be discovered, but the material itself has to be created (e.g. by designing the plastic, or purifying and casting the one element, or extracting the chemical from the herb). In each case we say there’s both creation and discovery, and we can distinguish the ways.

    If various systems of ritual are acceptable as long as they perform the central function of ritual, what reasons can I have to adhere to this system of ritual (rather than some other acceptable system)? It seems to me insufficient to respond that this system is the accepted system of my community, because this gives normative force to a consideration that falls outside of the realm of what makes ritual acceptable. If the acceptability of a system of ritual is based on its ability to limit desires in a certain way, then our reasons to adhere to ritual are also thus constrained. The purely conventional features of ritual unconnected to its performance of this function can have no normative relevance.

    I don’t know how you work out the argument in detail, but offhand it seemes like a relevant objection to say that a practice’s being conventional is in general highly relevant to the performance of the function. A system’s being accepted by people around me is part of what makes it effective for me and (in case of non-solitary ritual) possible for me to participate in.

    I wonder whether the kind of effectiveness you’re thinking about includes the effectiveness of Smith’s performance in modifying Jones.

  2. Hi Bill-
    thanks for your comments! Sorry I took so long to respond-it’s been a crazy week. Now I’ve got a little bit of free time though.

    The difference I’m thinking of is like that between, say, moral realism and anti-realism. If there are moral facts of whatever kind, sure we still have to create theories expressing them, just like we do with scientific theories. But the facts constrain proper theory. In the case of the anti-realist, there is nothing in the world beyond conventions that constrain proper moral theories. The right ones are simply the ones cohering with the conventions we’ve agreed on (or however the conventions are decided on). The idea is that ritual might be either seen as purely conventional–we agree on rituals based on how we decide to constrain our desires (we all accept the rituals constructed by the sages because they were good at constructing ritual), and what makes them acceptable is whether or not they respect these conventions–or as based on mind-independent facts about what constrains our desires in the necessary way. Basically, I’m seeing the realism/conventionalism about ritual debate as essentially the same as the realism/anti-realism debate in metaethics.

    On your second point–what I had in mind here was the possibility of *leaving* my community and joining another, for example. What got me thinking about this was what David Wong says about pluralism in his “Natural Moralities”, and the basic problem I have with that. He seems able to give justifications for any given moral system (insofar as it has the required interpersonal and intrapersonal effects), but he has no way (based on this conventionalism) to show that I ought to adopt THIS moral system or remain in THIS moral community rather than some other. And it’s a worse problem than just a consideration of whether I should be a member of one religious community or another, one village or another. What’s to stop me from going with a few friends to form our own moral community, and justifying the normative practices of our community in terms of its internal coherence, its production of the requisite interpersonal and intrapersonal effects for the four of us? I never have any reason, that is, to choose to stay in this moral community rather than entering into any number of possible others that might be equally effective. And no such reasons can be generated from within the relevant considerations allowing for pluralism in the first place. Any reasons given for choosing one community over another would ultimately have to be grounded in considerations beyond the interpersonal and intrapersonal effects of morality within a community. And it does have to be fixed to community, because if interpersonal harmony with EVERYONE is necessary, then it seems to follow that there will only be a single moral community wherever there is any contact, and the pluralism breaks down. But if we allow for multiple moral communities that also have contact with one another, the problem remains. Sure, if I leave my current community and enter another, I will alienate myself from the members of my current community, but I will GAIN in terms of deeper relationships with the members of my new community–and the pluralist view can only tell me that I should do things that have positive interpersonal effects–I should aim for maximal harmony and social cohesion within some group–but it doesn’t give me any guidance concerning WHICH persons or communities I ought to aim to harmonize. I take it this is also part of the problem with religious pluralism. If religions are all true, then it is justifiable for me to accept and remain in any of them, but then I have no reason to be in a particular one rather than another. While this might not be problematic for those who ALREADY have religious commitments, what does the person who doesn’t have religious commitment do? Also-what of the person who becomes disenchanted with various aspects of their own religion, etc?

    This is all still very general, but these are the lines along which I’ve been thinking.

  3. Thank you! A partial response now:

    Well then I guess what I’m wondering about is the question “whether we ought to see Xunzi as endorsing a conventionalist view or a realist view of ritual.” Offhand I’m inclined to think there’s no great difficulty about articulating or holding intermediate views, and I’m inclined to think the extreme views are implausible; so I expect that if I knew Xunzi’s work well I might resist the question.

    Here are two crude examples of what I’d call intermediate views.

    REALISM IN THE ABSTRACT, CONVENTIONALISM ABOUT MANY DETAILS: The right ritual behavior for me is whatever promotes (or expresses) mutual respect; but in fact a big part of what determines whether behavior X promotes (or expresses) respect is the existing conventions.

    CONVENTIONALISM IN THE ABSTRACT, REALISM ABOUT MANY DETAILS: The right communal ritual is whatever is supported by very stable convention (if any); but in fact many substantial norms are so much easier than others to agree on stably, that we can reasonably expect them to be conventionally accepted everywhere there is stable convention.

    As you may suggest toward the end, there’s a difficulty in the latter view after all, about how to distinguish cases where there are no ritual requirements (“real” doesn’t imply “ubiquitous”) and cases where the conventions are against the ritual requirements.

  4. What’s to stop me from going with a few friends to form our own moral community, and justifying the normative practices of our community in terms of its internal coherence, its production of the requisite interpersonal and intrapersonal effects for the four of us?

    I think that’s a really great question, worth brainstorming over. So here’s a start.

    Maybe a community has less oomph when it has less depth: smaller size, briefer history, no extended family lines in time and space, no secure land or legal independence.

    Is a certain level of coherence among 10 people twice as good as that same level of coherence among 5?

    There may be a norm against skipping out, in the community we’re already in: for example, norms against leaving family behind.

    Does the idea that a relationship is not elective help make it deep?

    Sure, if I leave my current community and enter another, I will alienate myself from the members of my current community, but I will GAIN in terms of deeper relationships with the members of my new community

    Does it matter that one has been seen (by oneself and others) to be someone willing to skip out on the community?

    * * *

    And no such reasons can be generated from within the relevant considerations allowing for pluralism in the first place. Any reasons given for choosing one community over another would ultimately have to be grounded in considerations beyond the interpersonal and intrapersonal effects of morality within a community.

    I don’t understand why that would be so; or maybe I just don’t understand what is the object whose effects you’re referring to at the end.

  5. I wrote ambiguously when I wrote, “Is a certain level of coherence among 10 people twice as good as that same level of coherence among 5?”

    I didn’t mean to be proposing the idea that Aristotle associates with Plato in Politics II: the idea that a large group can be as closely tied as, among us, a small family is.

    Rather I meant to be comparing the case where, say, every member of a group of 50 has 2 close friends and good relations with all 8 neighbors, with the case where every member of a group of 100 has 2 close friends and good relations with all 8 neighbors. That kind of way of counting “same degree of coherence.”

  6. Here’s another way to put my main overall question:

    A. It should be uncontroversial that convention is at least one of the realities that determine what is morally right and wrong. How big a role it plays is a question of degree: let’s say, from 0 to 1.

    B. Also, the content of existing convention in any given place is to some degree determined (affected) by realities other than convention. Let’s say the range of conceptual possibility is from 0 to 1.

    (Perhaps we should say the answer to the question of degree in B is determined by the meaning of the word ‘convention’. If so, presumably the answer is not 0; for then there would be no “convention.”)

    In my ignorance and forgetfulness I would like to ask you whether there is anything in Xunzi to suggest that he (a) had thought about the questions of degree in A or B, or (b) might have decided on an answer to one or the other, or (c) had a word whose meaning included an answer to the question in B?

    Is there anything in Xunzi to suggest that he had decided on one of the extreme answers to either of these questions?

  7. Hi Bill-
    these are great questions- thanks! Sorry it’s taking me so long to respond-I’ve been ridiculously busy lately. However, I’m going to write you something longer on this when I finish with teaching today; I think you raise good points here. Briefly, on your first comment above:

    *Does it matter that one has been seen (by oneself and others) to be someone willing to skip out on the community?*

    I am thinking here in terms of something like religious conversion. By the standards of the new community (which takes itself to be authoritative), there was good reason to leave the previous community, because it was flawed in certain ways. I take it that part of what is needed in Wong’s kind of pluralist system is a sense from within each system of norms that it is uniquely justified (or, better- true) while other systems are not, or else you have an explosion of the worst of the problems of a pluralist society (how do we make laws respecting contradictory norms of different communities, how, other than “this is your group, that isn’t” do we ultimately justify the norms imposed on our children, etc.). It seems to me that what people within the person’s new community are likely to see is the same thing that the person who has changed communities thinks has been his or her motivation–they saw somethiing in the new group that was more attractive than their old one. While some in the new group may see this as fickle, many others will likely see it is as group-affirming. This is probably why communities often split ranks over the status of converts–some love them right away and some keep them at arms length (at least until they prove their commitment).

    Anyway–more to come later!

  8. Hi Alexus, thanks for the reply!

    When you asked above, “What’s to stop me from going with a few friends to form our own moral community…?” I took that to be meant as a rhetorical question meant to suggest the point that Wong can’t account for why people in Community A, when they’re in A, have adequate practical reason to stay in A, and therefore can’t account for their having reason to abide by A’s norms. But your recent reply to me seems not to fit that reading of what you meant, because your reply seems to look pointedly away from any issue about what the people in A, when they’re in A, have practical reason to do. Sorry to be so slow about this – what argument did you mean to suggest by the original question?

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