Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

China's First Philosophers?

I’m interested in the question of whether the Mohists were China’s first philosophers—both in what the question means, and in the answers that it might invite.

There’s a good case to be made that in at least one important sense, they were the first.

It’s widely agreed that the Mohists were the first to engage in sustained philosophical argument, and (this may be more controversial) the first to attempt to articulate the normative foundations of their dào.

There’s also good reason to think that it was the Mohists who first provoked other early Chinese thinkers to provide their dào with philosophical justifications. With few exceptions, non-Mohist texts that include such justifications are clearly responding to a philosophical context, often with named opponents. But no such context is apparent in most of the writings of the early Mohists, particularly in those texts that seem earliest (such as the shàng books on war and inclusive care): these texts either do not mention ideological rivals at all, or identify them quite generally as the rulers or gentlemen of the world—not as other philosophers. The implication: philosophical argumentation was original only with the Mohists.

So if we conceive of philosophy in such a way that it essentially involves philosophical argumentation, then it is likely not only that the Mohists were China’s first philosophers, but also that it was precisely their arguments that provoked other early Chinese thinkers to take up philosophy: the Mohists were not only the first in chronological terms, they also provoked the rest.

Is this conclusion correct? How significant is it? What other ways of conceiving of philosophy would lead to different conclusions? Does the possibility of conceiving of philosophy in other ways mean that it is a mistake to wonder who did it first?

March 2, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, History, Mohism | 45 comments