Columbia Society for Comparative Philosophy lecture on Truth and Argument in Ancient Chinese Philosophy Dec 6 @5:30pm



BRYAN VAN NORDEN (Vassar College)

With responses from:

TIMOTHY CONNOLLY (East Stroudsburg University)

Please join us at Columbia University’s Religion department on Friday, December 6, 2013 at 5:30 for his lecture called:

“Truth and Argument in Ancient Chinese Philosophy”


Most informed students of comparative Chinese-Western philosophy would agree with the following four claims: 

  1. Chinese philosophy is almost always concerned with truths that have ethical and social implications, whereas Western philosophy is sometimes concerned with purely theoretical puzzle-solving.
  2. Nonetheless, historically speaking, most Western philosophers have in fact been motivated to philosophize by ethical and social concerns.  The trend toward theoretical puzzle-solving is largely characteristic of some 20th century philosophy, particularly in the English-speaking world.
  3. Aristotle invented the first form of formal, deductive logic in the West, whereas Chinese philosophers were much more interested in the complexities of ordinary language arguments.
  4. Nonetheless, philosophers in both China and the West give philosophical arguments – and sometimes structurally similar philosophical arguments – without needing to use formal logic.

Controversy remains, though, over the proper way to understand the role of “truth” in Chinese philosophy.  In particular, some interpreters have claimed that Chinese philosophers would not accept a Correspondence Theory of Truth or, more radically, were unconcerned with truth at all.  Consequently, most of my talk will address two issues:

  1. Did Chinese thinkers assume something like a Correspondence Theory of Truth?
  2. Were Chinese thinkers interested in truth in any sense?

In short, my responses to these questions will be:

  1. It depends on what you mean by a “Correspondence Theory.”
  2. Of course.

December 6, 2013, 5:30-7:30 pm

Rm. 101, 80 Claremont Ave, Columbia University


10 replies on “Columbia Society for Comparative Philosophy lecture on Truth and Argument in Ancient Chinese Philosophy Dec 6 @5:30pm”

  1. I hope the audio of the talk is posted afterwards.

    Regarding question 2, I find it interesting that etymologically, 眞 (“truth”) appears to have emerged later than 信 and 誠 (“trustworthiness”/”truthfulness”). In other words, the speaker’s attitude was considered philosophically prior to the correspondence of the statement itself.

    • We’ve posted audio in the past and will try to revive the practice.

      As to your observation–even if we grant that zhen comes after xin and cheng, I’m not sure anything philosophical can be inferred from that. But maybe I’m not understanding what you mean by “philosophically prior to”?

    • Four comments!

      1. Zhen 真 does not quite mean “truth.” That’s a rather modern and Mandarin-y interpretation. The phonologically distinct zhen 貞 is actually closer to “truth” (“that which has been verified”), but zhen 真 is more in the semantic domain of “perfect, integral, immaculate.”

      2. Nor does cheng 誠 mean “truthfulness,” frankly. Cheng is identical to cheng 成, “to fill, to complete,” and thus cheng 誠 in Classical Chinese means “perfected, fulfilled.”

      3. For that matter, on what basis are we saying that zhen 真 is later than xin 信 or cheng 誠? Are we talking about the graphs or the underlying words? (The graph cheng 誠 is quite late, whereas the graph zhen 真 appears in Western Zhou bronze inscriptions.) How do we go about establishing when words appeared in the language?

      4. Lastly, the date of this seminar is stated incorrectly in the thread title. It should be Dec. 6, I presume.

    • Paul, regarding #2 ” Cheng is identical to cheng 成, to fill, to complete,”and thus cheng 誠 in Classical Chinese means “perfected, fulfilled.””
      I’m curious why you regard the phonetic component 成 to be the chief semantic signifier in 誠. It seems you regard the latter as little more than an allograph of the former.

    • @Scott: They’re two different graphs for (different senses of) the same word–like zheng 正 and zheng 政 (or, as I’ve recently argued, zhong 中 and zhong 忠).

      Cheng 誠 is a relatively late graph, incidentally. It’s just cheng 成 with the late addition of 言 as a semantic clarification.

      You can’t do this kind of magic with EVERY appealing pair, but when you’re talking about words that are clearly semantically linked and are ostensible homophones at every stage of the language, you’re probably dealing with two different graphs for the same word.

      Philosophers need to read more about this stuff. In fact, I’m toying with the idea of going into it at the next NECCT (whenever and wherever that is).

    • So, what sense of the word cheng 成 is semantically clarified by the addition of the 言 element? From what you’ve given above, it seems you regard 誠 to be the past tense of 成 (i.e., to fill -> fulfilled; to complete -> perfected).

      What do you make of both the Shuowen Jiezi and Erya glossing 誠 as 信? It’s also linked with many other words meaning ‘sincere’ e.g. chen 忱, xun 恂/詢, chen 諶, dan 亶, bi 愊, yun 允.

      Regarding cheng as ‘truth”: Thesaurus Linguae Sericae (Harbsmeier?) says “Chéng 誠 (ant. wěi 偽 “faked”) refers to honest truth. (Note that chéng 誠 normally means “earnest” in early texts and has nothing to do with this meaning.)” It also says “Qíng 情 (ant. wěi 偽 “fake”) and chéng 誠 (ant. zhà 詐 “fraudulent”) are often used interchangeably to refer to the real facts versus what is pretended or what is merely superficial,” though no example passages are given.

  2. @Scott: (No way to embed another reply, so I have to start fresh.)

    My first comment is that I wouldn’t trust definitions in TLS because they tend to be arbitrary. As you imply, if there are no examples from real texts, you have to take anything they say with a grain of salt.

    Cheng 誠 has MANY senses, and, as with most Chinese words with long histories of usage, analyzing the jumble of dictionary definitions can be challenging. My thought about cheng is that the process must be complete -> completion/perfection (in a moral sense) -> indeed, surely -> sincere. The addition of the 言, in my view, indicates that we’re talking about 成 in a moral sense.

    Shuowen jiezi, I suspect, is responding to the sense of cheng 誠 as “surely, indeed.” (Xin 信 can be used like that too.) But that’s almost certainly a derived sense, and it doesn’t help you understand the use of cheng in texts like the “Bugou” chapter of Xunzi and, of course, Zhongyong (both of which, I think, are older than Xu Shen).

    So we’re left with a relatively late graph for a word that’s a perfect homophone of cheng 成, with a moral sense in the area of “self-improvement, self-perfection,” and an array of later senses in the range of “sincere.” I think the simplest way to account for all this is to say that it’s the same underlying WORD as cheng 成, but with a distinctive graph–again, on the model of 正/政 and 中/忠. It’s a fairly common phenomenon.

    • Paul,
      I don’t have an opinion on whether TLS’s cheng/zha statement is true or not, but just because no examples are given in this particular instance does not mean there aren’t any. I’ve personally found the website quite helpful, and the list of contributors and editors is very impressive. Of course, it is a work-in-progress.

      I’m a bit puzzled when you say that 言 indicates that we’re talking about 成 in a moral sense. What about 言 makes you think this? Is it something along the lines of taking 言 to indicate “prescriptive discourse”? Might this be considered arbitrary?

      The Zhongyong and Xunzi are earlier than the Shuowen, but perhaps not the Erya. But, no matter. It would be interesting to see if the meaning “sincere” could apply in earlier texts where 成 is used. If it so happens, then 成 may be a loangraph, used to represent the word “sincere” because of the homophony (and not semantics), eventually altered to 誠 to disambiguate.

    • I don’t know why scribes chose 言, but they did. You’d have to ask them why they chose to write zheng for “government” as 政 instead of 正. Or 忠 for “impartiality” (since that’s what it clearly meant before it came to mean “loyalty”) instead of 中. For that matter, why does the Mozi write qing 請 for qing 情? I’m sure that many of these choices were arbitrary, and we know that in Warring States times it was common for the same word to be written in a variety of different ways, so a lot of what seems “standard” today was decided ex post facto by editors who lived long after the original manuscripts had been written.

      Oh, incidentally, it has to be pointed out that in the Shuowen jiezi definition of 誠, Xu Shen clearly misunderstood the significance of the graph 信. He seems to think that the significant portion of 信 is 言. It’s not. The phonophore is 人, and 言 is just the radical. But virtually every dictionary has taken it the other way around, and the obvious reason is that sound change has obscured the phonetic connection between 人 and 信.

      Your last paragraph supposes a language with an ungodly number of homophones. Not out of the question, to be sure, but implausible in my view. What’s far more likely is that a lot of the words that appear as homophones today are really just different senses of what was originally the same word–and the defective nature of the Chinese script naturally abets this false impression.

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