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Classical Studies

Shame and moral education in ancient Greek and early Chinese thought: a comparative study of Aristotle and Xunzi

Förderungszeitraum: Dezember 2015 - Juni 2016
The topic of shame has been a focus of interdisciplinary study, having been approached through various disciplines such as philosophy, sociology, anthropology, education and psychology. My research takes a comparative and cross-cultural approach to this topic by investigating shame-related concepts in ancient Greek and early Chinese philosophy. In particular, I focus on Aristotle and the third century BCE Chinese philosopher Xunzi to investigate how such ideas relate to certain fundamental problems in their ethics and political thought. The aims are twofold: on the one hand, I examine the values that are in play in these philosophers and in the societies to which they belonged; on the other hand, I reflect on the comparative exercise itself and seek to address the problem of cross-cultural universals.

There was a lot of use made of simple-minded contrasts between shame cultures and guilt cultures that stem from Ruth Benedict and was applied to Greece by E. R. Dodds: I believe that a more fruitful approach is not to attempt global generalisations, but to undertake the detailed analysis of where ‘shame’ fits into the overall map of the emotions and of values in prominent Greek and Chinese philosophers. In discussing Aristotle’s and Xunzi’s notions of moral responsibility, I avoid adopting the ‘shame’/ ‘guilt’ model which is fraught with problems and instead frame the discussion in the ancients’ own terms. I take into account the socio-historical and intellectual backgrounds that were major factors in the development of these philosophers’ distinctive ideas and show how Aristotle’s and Xunzi’s approaches are geared, in each case, to their notions of moral education and political ideals. Through the comparative method, it is possible to identify what is distinctive about Aristotle’s and Xunzi’s ideas on human nature, the emotions, and the relationship between the individual and others in society.