Warp, Weft, and Way

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

Loving Brothers and Handsome Men


Anybody want to talk about ai 愛? It seems like this might be the day for it.

The natural topic (for me, anyway) is the Mohist doctrine of jian ai 兼愛, or inclusive care. But, awkwardly enough, it’s perfectly clear that this doctrine isn’t about love, much less romantic love. So that won’t do.

But what about the statement in the “Lesser Selection 小取” that though Huo does ai her younger brother, who is a handsome man, she does not ai a handsome man. That second ai maybe looks a bit Valentine-y. Does anyone think they know what’s going on?

The line about Huo is part of an extended argument in the “Lesser Selection” apparently intended to show that a kind of argument that the Mohists refer to as mou 侔 (parallelism?) doesn’t work. In this case, the rejected argument is something like this: Huo’s younger brother is a handsome man, so when she loves her younger brother, she loves a handsome man.

(I’m going to translate “ai” as “love” in honour of today’s festival, though “care for” might be more accurate.)

What’s supposed to be wrong with the argument? The English-language argument I’ve used to gloss it is valid, so it must get something wrong. But what?

Maybe the issue is classical Chinese’s lack of grammaticalised singular/plural and definite/indefinite (“the”/”a”) distinctions. Maybe the argument would translate more accurately as: her younger brother is a handsome man, so when she loves her younger brother, she loves handsome men. This is obviously bad.

One reason to like this diagnosis is that it goes wrong for reasons that the Later Mohists recognised in other contexts. To count as being 美人 (handsome man), you just have to be one of them; but to count as loving 美人, you actually have to love all of them. (Okay, not all of them exactly, but love them somehow generically.) This is a pretty good parallel for the distinction the later Mohists find between riding horses (which only requires that you ride some horses) and caring for people (which requires that you care for all people). Admittedly the fact that classical Chinese does not use a verbal copula might have obscured the parallel.

One reason not to like this diagnosis is that it makes it irrelevant that the argument is about handsome men and not, say, Confucians. “Her brother is a Confucian, in loving her brother she is loving Confucians”—this argument goes wrong in exactly the same way as the parallel argument about handsome men. But it’s hard to believe it’s irrelevant that the argument is about handsome men.

The usual approach, I think, is to say that the fact that the love is of a handsome man is supposed to change the kind of love that’s in question. Huo feels one kind of love for her younger brother. She’d feel an entirely different kind of love for a handsome man.

That doesn’t answer the question of how the Mohists would explain what’s going on here. A couple of recent-ish treatments (by Zong Desheng in PEW 50.2 and by Marshall D. Williams in CP 1.1) have suggested that the issue is intensional contexts. (“Thinks” creates an intensional context, and that’s why “Lois Lane thinks Superman is handsome” doesn’t entail “Lois Lane thinks Clark Kent is handsome,” even though Clark Kent is Superman.)

I don’t buy it. We’re not talking here about the substitution of coreferential terms. The issue seems to be that a verb’s sense can be affected by the noun it takes as object, and that’s not intensionality (though whatever it is it’s pretty neat). And even if it were intensionality, the Mohists don’t seem to be trying to explain why these arguments fail, it’s enough for them that they do fail, so they’re unlikely to be saying that they fail because of intensionality. Certainly they don’t develop a theory that would motivate a distinction between extensional and intensional contexts.

But forget about all that. Today is Valentine’s Day, and what’s interesting today is what kind of love the Mohists were talking about when they raised the possibility that Huo might love a handsome man. My own academic formation makes me resist the idea that they’re talking about anything we would recognise as romantic love. But that doesn’t mean I have anything smart to say about what they were talking about.

Or we could just talk about inclusive care. It’s actually an important issue whether inclusive care would be consistent with love (of any sort, though including especially 親). In my view it would be, and the Mohists assumed as much. But maybe not everyone agrees?


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