RePost- Xunzi on The Nature of Knowledge

I have copied here Chapter 21 of the Xunzi Jijie, the collected works of the great sage Xunzi. A later Confucian master who has received much less esteem than his work merits, Xunzi has historically been remembered as the mentor of Han Feizi, who went on to found the proto-fascist doctrine of Legalism. Nonetheless Xunzi’s method is resoundingly clear and salient, and his ideas presented here have been extremely influential upon my thought.

The regard the first one-third to one-half of this passage as crucial. The rest is useful and interesting and complements the opening, but is not nearly so delightful as its neighbor. I have attached the link to the complete works of Xunzi at the bottom of the page.



21: Eliminating Beclouding

[Dubs, Watson]

People tend to suffer from a proneness to being beclouded by a single corner, thereby causing the Great Order to remain hidden from them.


But nowadays, the dukes/feudal-lords have strange/different [unorthodox] governments, and the Hundred Schools have strange doctrines/explanations—and so, right and wrong are mixed up, and orderliness and disorderliness are mixed up.

And thus, although princes of erring/chaotic countries and members of erring/disorderly schools may genuinely seek to be right, and consider themselves to be the judge of right and wrong, their partiality causes them to be in error, averse to tao, and misled by others who cater to what they follow.

Partial to what they have accumulated, they fear hearing its evilness. And leaning on their partialness, they fear hearing the praise of differing arts—even if they inquire into them.


What brings beclouding?

Desire can bring beclouding, the beginning can bring beclouding, the end can bring beclouding, distance can bring beclouding, nearness can bring beclouding, the profound can bring beclouding, the superficial can bring beclouding, the ancient can bring beclouding, the present can bring beclouding.

The major scholars of earlier times were beclouded—and from them came the disordered schools.

Mo Tzu was beclouded by [narrow standards of] utility, and did not know life’s elegancies [that are also beneficial]. Sung Tzu [,believing that desires naturally seek little amd should be given reign to] was beclouded by desire and did not know virtue. Shen Tzu [emphasized having one prince and using laws; taught that worthy officials, honoring the worthy, and employing the able are not that important] was beclouded by law, and did not know worthiness. Shen Tzu [(not the same person as the aforementioned Shen Tzu) believed that the ruler should only delegate his power to a person of talent] was beclouded by power/technique/method, and did not know wisdom. Huei Tzu [Neo-Mohist leader who stressed dialectic] was beclouded by words and did not know reality. Chuang Tzu [mystical philosopher] was beclouded by Nature, and did not know man.

If we consider tao from the standpoint/perspective of utility, it will merely be seeking gain. If we consider tao from the perspective of desire, it will merely be seeking satisfaction. If we consider tao from the perspective of law, it will merely be an art. If we consider tao from the perspective of power, it will merely be convenience. If we consider tao from the perspective of words, it will merely be dialectic. If we consider tao from the standpoint of Nature, it will merely be relying on things as they are.

These different presentations are all an aspect of tao.

But tao is constant, and includes all changes. One aspect is not sufficient to present the whole.

Those with partial knowledge perceive an aspect of tao, but are unable to know its totality—and thus, they think it is sufficient, and they gloss things over.

They confuse themselves and they mislead others.

Rulers end up beclouding inferiors, and inferiors end up beclouding superiors.


The Sage knows the afflictions that befall the mind, and sees calamities that come from being beclouded/prejudiced and hindered from knowing the truth. Therefore, he considers neither desire nor hate, beginning nor end, nearness nor distance, the universal nor the superficial, ancient nor the present. He is equally able to dispose of all things, and keeps balances level [rightly judges the value of things]. And thus, no sect can prejudice him or confuse his perception of the organizing principles of life.

Tao is the Correct Standard

What should be considered the weight used in the balances [used to weigh everything else]?

It is tao.

Therefore, one’s heart dare not be ignorant of tao. If one’s heart is ignorant of tao, then it cannot approve of tao, and can only approve of non tao.


If he picks people according to a heart that approves of tao, this will cause him to be like tao people, and unlike non-tao people.

The Heart/Mind Can Know Tao Through Emptiness, Unity, and Stillness

How can a person know tao?

I say: By the heart.

How does the heart know?

I say: By emptiness, unity, and stillness.

The heart never stops storing [impressions], yet it also has what is called “emptiness.” The heart never stops having multiplicity/division/duality/diversity [of objects], yet it also has what is called “unity.” The heart never stops moving, yet it also has what can be called quiescence/stillness.

A person from birth has the capacity to know things. With this knowing is intention/collected-data-and-memory. This intention is what is storing [impressions]. But there is also what is called emptiness. What does not allow what is already stored to harm [with partiality] what is about to received is called emptiness.

A person from birth has a heart that has the capacity/accumulation for knowledge. This knowledge contains distinctions/differentiation. These distinctions consist of the simultaneous knowing of multiple things. This simultaneous knowing of multiple things is plurality/division. But there is also what is called unity. What does not allow impression/awareness/knowing to harm impression/knowing [and what allows a person to focus on what is most essential at the time] is called unity.

When the heart sleeps, it dreams. When it takes its ease, it indulges in reverie/wandering. When it is used, it reflects/schemes. Thus, the mind is always moving. But it also has what is called stillness. What does not allow dreams and fantasies to disturb/disorder one’s knowledge is called stillness.

Someone who is seeking tao but does not know it should be told about emptiness, unity, and stillness, in order to attain/act.

Someone who intends to seek tao will be able to receive it by having emptiness. Someone who intends to serve of tao will be able to do it in its entirety by having unity. Someone who desires to contemplate tao will be able to be discerning by having stillness.

Someone who perceives/understands tao, discerns it, and puts it into practice—such a person embodies tao.

Emptiness, unity, and equanimity can be said to be The Illustriousness of Following the Right Principle and Virtue / Great Clear/Pure Brightness/Understanding.


… When the heart is divided, it possesses no knowledge; when it is upset; it is not quick witted; when it is wandering, it is in doubt. But when it is not so, it can be used to help investigate, and all things can be embraced and known.

Thus, the human heart is like a tub of [muddy] water. Place it upright and do not move it, and the muddiness/impurities will settle to the bottom, and the water surface will be clear and bright enough to mirror the beard and eyebrows, and show the complexion’s condition.

But if a little wind crosses its surface, the mud/impurities will rise/be-stirred from the bottom, and the surface clearness and brightness will be disturbed, until a person cannot even use it to see whether he is standing upright.

The heart is like that. Therefore, if it is guided by principle and nourished by purity, no things will be able to overturn/tilt it, and it will be able to determine right and wrong, and decide what should be disliked and suspected.

But should a little thing leads/pulls it astray, a person’s orientation/aplomb will alter and his heart will be tilted, rendering him enable to decide matter in general. …

The Sage gives free reign to his desires and satisfies his passions, but is controlled by and accords with principle—so why should he need to be forced/will-strength, repressed/endurance, or anxious/caution?

For the jen person’s acting out/practicing of tao is wu wei, and the Sage’s acting out/performance of tao is without forcing himself. The thoughts of the jen.htm person reverence the thoughts of the Sage [or the jen.htm person’s thoughts are reverent, and those of the Sage are joyful]. To rejoice in this is the tao of the person of a controlled heart [developing te internally].

When observing things, if there is doubt and the heart is uncertain, things will not be apprehended clearly—and when one’s thoughts lack clarity, one cannot decide whether a thing is or is not.

If someone is walking in the dark and sees a stone on the ground, he will take it to be a crouching tiger; or if he sees trees standing upright, he will take them to be standing men. The darkness has perverted his clear-sightedness.

If a drunken person is crossing a wide aqueduct, he will take it to be a narrow ditch; or if he exits a city gate, he will bend down his head and take it to be a small private door. The wine has confused his spirit.

If someone sticks his finger in his eye and looks, one thing will appear as two; and if he covers his ears and listens, he will take a small sound to be a big noise. The circumstances have confused his senses.

In looking down from a mountain, a cow looks like a sheep; but someone who wants a sheep would not go down and lead it away. The distance has obscured its size.

In looking from the foot of a mountain, a big tree looks like a chopstick; but someone who wants a chopstick would not go down and break it off. The height of the mountain has obscured its length. …

When a blind person lifts his head and looks, he does not see the stars. His blindness has misled him.

If someone made judgments under such circumstances, he would be really stupid for doing so.

In his judgments, the stupid person uses doubtful premises to make decisions. Using doubtful premises to make decisions, he cannot be correct. Not able to be correct, how can he be without fault?

… The true student studies resolutely until the end.

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