Is Mengzi’s biàn 辯 philosophy or rhetorical persuasion?: Undermining an argument through its own reasoning

Suzuki, Yumi (2 July 2019). Is Mengzi’s biàn 辯 philosophy or rhetorical persuasion?: Undermining an argument through its own reasoning (Unpublished). In: ISCP - International Society for Chinese Philosophy. University of Bern. 02.-05.07.2020.

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Whenever someone asks me why Mengzi proclaims that xìng 性 (human nature) is good, one vexation always arises for me - can I confidently say that any of Mengzi’s arguments for this, probably most famous doctrine of his own, are ever sufficiently convincing? The variety of relevant argument presented by Mengzi includes (1) the example that King Xuan of Qi, who aggressively invades neighbouring countries and continuously sends his people to battle, turns out to find it unbearable to see a single ox to be sacrificed (Mengzi 1.7/3/20-1.7/6/30); (2) the analogy of nourishing qì (氣) with sprouts that are spoilt by a farmer who unnecessarily pulls them up to help them grow (3.2/14/31-3.6/18/12); (3) the case of an alarming feeling that everyone commonly and spontaneously experiences when one finds an infant is about to fall into a well (3.6/18/4-3.6/18/12); and finally (4) his attempted refutation of Gaozi’s analogy of xìng with flowing water towards whichever direction it leads (11.1/56/15-11.3/57/5). None of these arguably supports his conclusion that xìng is good more than that it is neutral or amoral. Consequently, the doctrine appears to be sheer simple-minded optimism, even if it might be an otherwise praiseworthy attitude to really believe that all people are good in their own nature, or that promoting such a doctrine may bring certain positive consequences to society or each individual. The uneasiness of mine derives from Mengzi’s ambiguous, intricate, and somewhat tricky ways of defending the doctrine against his opponents, let alone the actual content of what he means by xìng being good. This paper thus looks closely into the various reasoning Mengzi provides to answer his pupils’ questions and others’ challenges to identify what role they in fact play in these dialogues. Compared with Xunzi’s dense and thorough defences that xìng is bad, Mengzi’s arguments often appear less careful, makeshift, and for the sake of persuasion. The criticism of Mengzi’s fondness of argument (biàn 辯) as a result seems reasonable despite his excuse for engaging in it (6.9/34/13-6.9/35/10). It should be reconsidered whether Mengzi’s argument is genuinely philosophical or actually rhetorical, the latter of which is not concerned with xìng itself at all, but more deeply with the ways he can make others’ ‘xìng’ good. In conclusion, the suggestion made will be that when Mengzi develops biàn on a specific subject he does not directly address his opponents’ claims, but demonstrates that their reasoning is pointless. Mengzi picks up particular reasons which his interlocutors employ to protect their own beliefs and refutes these beliefs by using the same reasoning. Mengzi consequently shows that their claims do not have solid grounds to rely on. In this sense Mengzi’s explanations that he knows yán 言 (words) (3.2/15/29-3.2/16/13) and that he believes there are five ways of effectively teaching others (13.40/72/8-13.40/72/9) faithfully explains what he does. His biàn is mostly used for neutralising biàn rather than for suggesting an alternative, to dismiss the increasing biàn activities amongst his contemporary debaters.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)


06 Faculty of Humanities > Department of Art and Cultural Studies > Institute of Philosophy

UniBE Contributor:

Suzuki, Yumi


100 Philosophy
100 Philosophy > 160 Logic
100 Philosophy > 170 Ethics
100 Philosophy > 180 Ancient, medieval & eastern philosophy




Yumi Suzuki

Date Deposited:

24 Jun 2020 07:59

Last Modified:

24 Jun 2020 07:59

Additional Information:

Thema: Reality, Argumentation, and persuasion: Metaphysical Explorations and Epistemological Engagements In Chinese Philosophy

Uncontrolled Keywords:

Chinese Philosophy, Confucianism, Mencius, Ethics, Rhetoric


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