Warp, Weft, and Way

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

Naturalism & Metaphysics in Early China, part I

I’d like to sneak up on an interpretive issue about early Chinese philosophy from a couple of directions–call them “tentative pincers.” This post will be part I of a two-parter; it will deal with one of the pincers.

The interpretive issue is this: what can we attribute by way of ontology to the early Chinese? (So, as you can see, this is a really minor topic…ha ha.) Chad Hansen has argued at length about this in A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought (passim). He argues that the whole package of abstract objects (ideas, minds, meanings, etc.) that comes from an Indo-European linguistic base for philosophical speculation, should be left out of a proper understanding of the early Chinese thinkers. The latter have at base a much more pragmatically oriented conception and/or use for language. So, the early Chinese see language primarily as a guidance system. That should color the views we attribute to them–ontological commitments do not venture beyond what is necessary for “getting about” in the world, with the result, for example, that we should understand concern with dao 道 “naturalistically” to be concern with ways of doing, rather than metaphysically to be concerned with some “supernatural,” perhaps abstract, thing to be revered. That’s of course a very cursory summary of Hansen, but we could talk more detail as it comes up. What I wanted to do was to take one step back from Hansen’s approach and discuss a couple of topics that strike me as necessary to clarify prior to Hansen’s argument: naturalism, on the one hand, and “the metaphysical,” on the other. So in this part, we’ll discuss naturalism.


How should we construe “naturalism” in the early Chinese context? I feel like I have some handle on naturalism, but only as a set of commitments of philosophers after the rise of empiricism in its various forms. How do we construe a pre-empiricist philosopher, either in the East or the West, as holding to naturalism? That might seem simple at first: any philosopher who explicitly or implicitly holds to a set of commitments identical to those of naturalism after empiricism is a naturalist. The problem, it seems to me, is that the going understanding of philosophical naturalisms requires someone who is a naturalist to constrain either their method or ontology through some form of reflective equilibrium with empirical science. Here’s why.

There are different ways to characterize views that are regarded philosophically as naturalistic. In recent analyses, at least two large categories of naturalism have been distinguished: methodological and substantive. Alvin Goldman (“A Priori Warrant and Naturalistic Epistemology” Philosophical Perspectives 13) characterizes the two kinds of naturalism, using “metaphysical” in place of “substantive”:

Some forms of naturalism involve metaphysical theses—for example, the thesis that everything in the world either is physical or supervenes on the physical—and some forms of naturalism involve methodological doctrines—for example the doctrine that proper methodology is purely empirical. (p. 2)

Substantive naturalism holds less interest for many contemporary philosophers because of its dogmatic, or potentially question-begging, flavor. Brian Leiter (“Naturalism in Legal Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2002 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2002/entries/lawphil-naturalism/>.) provides a useful expanded discussion of methodological naturalism, which holds more appeal and has a more complicated relationship with the empirical:

Naturalism in philosophy is most often a methodological view to the effect that philosophical theorizing should be continuous with empirical inquiry in the sciences. Such a view need not presuppose a solution to the so-called “demarcation problem”—i.e., the problem of what demarcates genuine science from pseudo-science—as long as there remain clear, paradigmatic cases of successful sciences. Some M-naturalists [i.e. methodological naturalists] want “continuity with” only the hard or physical sciences (Hard M-naturalists); others seek “continuity with” any successful science, natural or social (Soft M-naturalists). Soft M-naturalism is probably the dominant strand in philosophy today.

Assuming then that use of empirical inquiry can be demarcated, so that genuine sciences can be identified, methodological naturalism involves preservation of continuity, or coherence, of one’s own inquiries with a larger class of inquiries. “Continuity with” successful science, however, can be further spelled out by what Leiter refers to as “Results Continuity” and “Methods Continuity.” The former

…requires that the substantive claims of philosophical theories be supported or justified by the results of the sciences…. Moral philosophers like Gibbard and Railton, despite profound substantive disagreements, both think that a satisfactory account of morality’s nature and function must be supported by the results of evolutionary biology, our best going theory for how we got to be the way we are…. A philosophical account of morality that explains its nature and function in ways that would be impossible according to evolutionary theory would not, by naturalistic scruples, be an acceptable philosophical theory.

By contrast, Methods Continuity

…demands only that philosophical theories emulate the “methods” of inquiry of successful sciences. “Methods” should be construed broadly here to encompass not only, say, the experimental method, but also the styles of explanation (e.g., via appeal to causes that determine, ceteris paribus, their effects) employed in the sciences.

Understanding naturalism in these ways, it seems to me like naturalism of any sort has to privilege modern, contemporary science. For example, to be a “naturalist” about ethics, broadly speaking, is to think that the concepts and justifications in ethical theories ought to be constrained by what the available science deems likely to be true of the world, whether it is the kinds of properties and causes that exist generally for various kinds of events and objects, or the psychological explanations that exist for the actions and attitudes of humans and other animals. Alternatively, we could think of naturalism to involve not so much a direct constraint from available science, but at least a hearty commitment to reflective equilibrium that takes seriously into account the picture of the world that the empirical sciences portray.

So, here are some questions I’m mulling: Can empirical science, or empiricism more generally, be attributed to the early Chinese context? On the other hand, does it even seem necessary to connect naturalism to empiricism? Can “naturalism” or “naturalistic” be applied usefully to the early Chinese thinkers without attributing empiricism? Am I being too narrow in construing philosophical naturalism in the ways cited above?

May 4, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Daoism, Hermeneutics, History, Taoism | 9 comments