Philosophers of the Warring States

A Sourcebook of Chinese Philosophy

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Kurtis Hagen, Steve Coutinho
  • Peterborough, ON: 
    Broadview Press
    , October
     448 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The anthology Philosophers of The Warring State: A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy is a useful introduction to Confucianism, Mohism, Daoism, and Legalism. Kurtis Hagen and Steve Coutinho translate selected key passages of these four schools with both summaries and comments. This annotated translation, a thoughtful contribution in itself, allows Hagen and Coutinho to present a Chinese philosophy that is meaningful to sinologists, western philosophers, and those who teach ancient Chinese thoughts.

The main contribution of Philosophers of The Warring State is its annotated translation. In contrast with scholarship that is only a translation (e.g., Cai Xiqin ed. translated by He Zuokang, Chinese Sages Series: A Selected Collection of Mencius, Sinolingua, 2006), this anthology also offers extraordinary and synoptic abstracts before the translation as well as analytic comments immediately following each segment of the classics.The second chapter, “Key Philosophical Terms,” gives reasonable explanations for thirty-eight key terms and various translations depending on different contexts for those terms.

Additionally, the anthology offers an innovative interpretation of the well-known opposing teachings on human nature held by Meng Zi (372-298 BCE) and Xun Zi (373-328 BCE). Many scholars emphasize Meng and Xun’s differing views on human dispositions, however, Hagen and Coutinho argue that this difference is only a matter of the degree of emphasis. Given that Meng viewed human nature as good, he included ritual propriety (li) in his four virtues with the emphasis on humanity (ren) and care for others (ai). Conversely, Xun believed human nature to be evil, thus he emphasized wisdom (li orzhi, namely, sages’s intelligence and human reason) to regulate human behaviorTherefore, “Meng’s emphasis on rencorrelates with his emphasis on feelings while Xun’s emphasis on li correlated with his emphasis on thinking” (23). Both Meng and Xun analyzed xin (which can mean either mind or heart): Xun emphasized mindwhile Meng emphasized heart. This tension within Confucianism explains why this teaching is not solely focused on Confucius’s philosophy despite Confucius’s (551-497 BCE) founding of the school of Ru.

This anthology is significant given that Hagen and Coutinho, along with other recent scholars, support the movement of using “Ruism” rather than “Confucianism” to refer to the school of ru (rujia). Tony Swain, author of Confucianism in China: An Introduction (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), also proposes leaving “Ru” untranslated and replacing “Confucianism” with “Ruism.” Though three key Ruists (Confucius, Meng, and Xun) during the Warring States period (475-221 BCE) shared basic norms, they prioritized the different elements of Ruism —renli, mind, or heart. As Hagen and Coutinho suggest, the school of ruchanges through time based on its leading figures’s influence. Confucius’s positions were rarely elaborated, but rather reinterpreted by his disciples, Meng and Xun. Therefore, “Confucianism”—literally meaning the philosophy of Confucius—is only a part of “Rusim,” the whole school that was enriched by Confucius’s disciples. Hagen and Coutinho’s argument pellucidly explains why “Ruism” is a more suitable term for the school of ru.

Additionally, Hagen and Coutinho provide a new approach that challenges the standard method of teaching Chinese philosophy. Unlike scholars who conventionally start with Confucianism, Hagen and Coutinho recommend studying Confucianism after becoming familiar with Legalism. They argue that the legalist idea of “using punishments to enforce social rules predates Confucius” (27), and that Confucianism was an alternative approach to governing states in legalist ways. Also, instead of studying the Analects first, Hagen and Coutinho suggest studying Mengziand Xunzi beforehand given the Analects’s ambiguities in explaining Confucianism. The Analects of Confucius always requires one to read many passages to develop a sense of Confucius’s project. When people begin with Meng’s emphasis on humanity (ren) and Xun’s emphasis on ritual propriety (li), these two key propositions of Confucius become clearer. Such an efficient order can be an innovative pedagogical method for those who teach Chinese philosophy.

Despite their useful translation and innovative angle, Hagen and Coutinhomiss the opportunity to mention the modern relevance of early Chinese Philosophy. What is the contemporary meaning of these old philosophies? This anthologyhits the mark of ancient Chinese philosophy—“who had the best way of life” at that time (30). However, it leaves unanswered what is the best way to make an ethical choice today. Michael Puett’s book (The Path: A New Way to Think About Everything, Simon & Schuster, 2016) covers both classic philosophy and current meaning of these philosophies. 

In sum, understanding Chinese philosophy during the Warring States periods helps in two ways. Any sinologist using English to build their scholarship needs to know about these early Chinese classics given that these philosophies were the root of Chinese civilization. We can never understand China well if we only look at its present history or literature. To present-day philosophers, Chinese philosophy also expands the boundary for academic discipline due to its distinctive features from the western philosophical tradition.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jiangxue Han is a graduate student of Asian Religions at Yale Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
March 27, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kurtis Hagen is former Chair of the Philosophy Department at SUNY Plattsburgh and author of The Philosophy of Xunzi: A Reconstruction (Open Court, 2007).

Steve Coutinho is Department Head and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Muhlenberg College and author of Zhuangzi and Early Chinese Philosophy (Routledge, 2018) and An Introduction to Daoist Philosophies (Columbia, 2014).


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