Xúnzǐ on Desire
Next week I’ll be taking part in a roundtable discussion at the Pacific APA with Kurtis Hagen, Eric Hutton, and Aaron Stalnaker, and we’ll be talking about what Xúnzǐ had to say about desire. I thought I’d post here some of the thoughts I’ll be presenting there.
The question I want to raise (and I hope it is a provocative question) is whether Xúnzǐ thought of desire as a kind of motivation.
Here’s the argument that he did not. In “Correct Names” (but not the part of that piān that’s actually about naming) he argues against the view that social order requires eliminating or reducing desires. He claims that how we act depends not on what we desire (yù 欲) but on what we approve of (kě 可). He writes, “Desire does not wait for what we can get, but seeking (qiú 求) follows what we approve of (欲不待可得，而求 者從所可).” His main piece of evidence for this is that we have a deep desire for life, but are still able to choose death when we do not approve of the course of action that would be necessary to preserve our lives.
Now, when Xúnzǐ talks about desire, he focuses on desires for sensory gratification and for social acclaim. He rarely implies that the attitudes we might call moral desires are actually desires; these attitudes would, according to the passage in “Correct Names,” count as approvals rather than as desires.
Part of what’s going on here is that Xúnzǐ treats desires as constants of human nature: they arise spontaneously from xìng 性 regardless of what we do and regardless of how virtuous we are. Thus, moral excellence requires us to transform not our desires but the way we act on those desires (the behaviour that he calls seeking). His conception of desire, then, is rooted in his conception of nature more generally: just as nature provides a constant context to which human societies must respond, our desires provide a constant context that we must respond to when we act. But it is approval, not desire, that determines how we respond.
How does this constitute an argument that desire is not, for Xúnzǐ, a form of motivation? Two things. First, he seems to be saying that it is approval, not desire, that gives us our ends or goals. For example, in choosing death, one does not choose an end that has any basis in desire. Second, he sees no conflict between desire and approval. It is not as if there is a struggle between them that approval consistently wins—so his contrast of desire and approval is not at all like the traditional western contrast of reason and passion, which constitute two competing sources of motivation. His view is just that approval is the sort of attitude with which we adopt an end, and desire is not. And this to me suggests that he is not thinking of desire as a form of motivation.
This isn’t a knock-down argument; the concept of motivation may well be too vague to support a knock-down argument. Still, it impresses me that there’s a genuine question here.
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