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.