Sophia 51 (2):155-175 (2012)

Ritual (li) is central to Confucian ethics and political philosophy. Robert Neville believes that Chinese Philosophy has an important role to play in our times by bringing ritual theory to the analysis of global moral and political issues. In a recent work, Neville maintains that ritual ‘needs a contemporary metaphysical expression if its importance is to be seen.’ This paper examines Neville's claim through a detailed study of the ‘ethics of ritual’ in one of the early Confucian texts, the Xunzi. This text has sometimes been read as offering a form of naturalism in its discussions of ‘heaven (tian)’ as analogous to Western, even modern, concept of ‘nature,’ while other interpreters insist that tian is a normative notion. Does this concept of tian offer a metaphysical ground for ethics of ritual advocated in the text? If so, what kind of metaphysics is it? Does Confucian ritual ethics need any metaphysical grounding? There is no specific metaphysical theory in the Xunzi and passages which could be referring to or implying metaphysical assumptions are open to hermeneutical debates. Even if metaphysical assumptions are necessary or beneficial to an ethics of ritual, the paper argues that the ‘metaphysical flexibility’ of the text could work to its advantage in remaining relevant in contemporary context. The conclusion explores some possible directions for further exploring the metaphysics of ritual in a modern understanding of Xunzi
Keywords Confucianism  Ethics  Metaphysics  Ritual  Heaven  Naturalism  Xunzi
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Reprint years 2014
DOI 10.1007/s11841-012-0304-6
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