Mencius on Becoming Human

By Jim Behuniak

Subjects: Confucianism, Asian Studies, Asian Religion And Philosophy
Series: SUNY series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture
Paperback : 9780791462300, 214 pages, November 2004
Hardcover : 9780791462294, 214 pages, November 2004

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Table of contents




Sketch of the Argument
Methodology and Key Terms


1. The Cosmological Background


Energy and Propensity
Shape and Spontaneity
Disposition and Spontaneity
Zhuangzi and Shape
Characteristics of Chinese Cosmology


2. The Role of Feeling


Feeling, Doctrine, and Dao
Feeling as Transactional
Aspiration and Courage
Internal/External and the Botanical Model
Desire, Coherence, and Integration


3. Family and Moral Development


Spontaneous vs. Technical Approaches
The Mohist Challenge
Recovering the Confucian Measure
Family as the Root
Family and Extension


4. The Human Disposition


Relationships and the Human Disposition
The Human Disposition as Good
The Four Sprouts and the Family
The Satisfaction of Becoming Human
The Value of the Person


5. Advancing the Human Way


The Constraints on Aspiration
The Conditions for Political Legitimacy
The Conditions for Human Achievement
Human Virtue in the Sacrifices
Aspiration and the Human Way






A new interpretation of the Confucian classic, the Mencius, based on both traditional sources and newly discovered documents.


Using current research from traditional sources and newly unearthed documents dating from the Warring States period (403–221 B. C.E. ), Mencius on Becoming Human offers a timely interpretation of a central text in the Confucian canon. The author carefully reconstructs the philosophical assumptions that underwrite the teachings of the Mencius, returning the text to its native intellectual world. The result is a compelling new reading of an ancient classic, one that is both sensitive to the details of historical context and contemporary in its philosophical implications.

James Behuniak Jr. argues that the notion of an essential, ahistorical "human nature" is not part of the process of "becoming human" outlined in the Mencius. Rather, becoming human is described as a process of developing a qualitatively "human" disposition within specific cultural and historical conditions as these are understood within a Warring States cosmology. The central themes of the Menciusthe importance of family, moral development, and human advancementare each discussed within this reconstructed framework.

James Behuniak Jr. is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Sonoma State University. He is coeditor (with Roger T. Ames) of The Mencian Conception of Human Nature.


"…Behuniak provides a comprehensive reading of the Mencius, ranging from cosmology and metaphysics to familial relations and human ethical development. This reading is frequently enlightening, sometimes surprising, and consistently interesting. Behuniak displays a thorough knowledge of Warring States texts and a remarkable ability to draw these together into a coherent perspective on the Mencius. " — Philosophy East & West

"In this book James Behuniak Jr. has clearly identified a central question in Chinese philosophy—what it is to be human. The book is boldly interpretative in its main thesis, and this thesis is sustained throughout and developed in various ways. It is also insightful in places … The breadth of scholarship is impressive … The thesis of the book may be controversial, but this is the stuff of philosophical hermeneutics, out of which further insights (to use a botanical metaphor) will grow. " — Dao

"…a highly unified interpretation of a text whose interest lies, in part, in its intellectually dynamic contradictions. " — China Review International

"This work is neatly balanced between commentary and independent philosophic study. It exemplifies what modern comparative philosophy ought to be. The author is faithful to the original materials and seeks to link the Mencius to current philosophic debates by presenting the Mencius text in light of the theme of becoming human. " — John H. Berthrong, author of Concerning Creativity: A Comparison of Chu Hsi, Whitehead, and Neville