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 = <>.) 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?

9 thoughts on “Naturalism & Metaphysics in Early China, part I

  1. First, even if Chinese language is largely about “ways of doing,” I see no reason why, in principle at least, this guidance can’t consider alignment, attunement, and so forth with forces, things, what have you, of metaphysical provenance or nature. Of course I think the problem is one of how to precisely construe the nature of the metaphysical, and here the Chinese contribution might be unique (differing in provacative ways from Platonic, neo-Platonic or Christian or other systems of metaphysics). Religions, traditionally, have given primacy to praxis.

    Secondly, I think you’re absolutely right 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.” Now science is not in the business of ontology or metaphysics even if it makes methodological assumptions having to do with same. It seems obvious that the scientific method is not the only path to knowledge on the one hand, and that science does not know what constitutes the “fundamental reality” of the universe on the other. Scientists need not commit themselves to anything like a robust or strong metaphysical realism of a materialist, physicalist or reductionist sort. Indeed, cartographic and model-building metaphors seems increasingly invoked by way of avoiding such strong commitments. The desire for the “final theory of everything” strikes me as unscientific metaphysical ambition that looks to physics as definitive of what science is, a picture increasingly seen within the sciences themselves as no longer tenable (i.e., there are many different kinds of science).

    Instead of “continuity,” I think the only constraint should be non-contradiction, a weaker and softer if not more flexible naturalist constraint. Thus while theism, for instance, is in conflict with metaphysical materialism it need not be in conflict with the findings of science as such, nor committed to either “results” nor “methods” continuity as outlined above, as one’s inquiries may be outside the class of scientific inquiry and thus in no way patently contradict them. The “methods” requirement is scientism pure and simple and makes philosophy the handmaiden of science. In any case, as Feyerabend said, “Pluralism of theories and metaphysical views is not only important for methodology, it is also an essential part of a humanitarian outlook.” Even within the sciences themselves, where biology is not reduced to physics, we discover, as Mary Midgley has observed, that “‘Reality’ turns out to contain many different kinds of pattern at different levels. [….] Different ways of thinking co-exist and are appropriate on different scales. No one of them dominates or invalidates the others.” This intra-scientific lesson might be equally valid outside of science proper.

    Classical Chinese philosophy strikes me as a far cry from science, perhaps less so from empiricism (it seems to me that science and empiricism are rather different and that some forms of scientific practice, as in physics, are a far cry from empiricism as that developed as a philosophical school/outlook in opposition to rationalism). So I think we should sharply distinguish the questions: one having to do with science proper, the other with empiricism. Neither science nor empiricism is, as practiced, suited to conceptual analysis (hence the former requires ‘philosophy’ of science). As others have made plain, philosophy is concerned with questions about the ‘forms of our representations,’ not about the truth or falsehood of empirical statements. These are logically distinct forms of intellectual inquiry. Science is not a reliable guide when it comes to questions of consciousness, experience, or ways of life. It has little to offer by way of treating questions of self-awareness and self-knowledge, or ethical commitment, or the lifelong struggle to find meaning in our lives. Yet another way to put this might be that “there are certain kinds of truth such that to try to grasp them purely intellectually is to avoid them” (John Cottingham). We might call these, generously, existential truths. It certainly is interesting to consider the fact that, historically at least, religion often provided the presuppositions for science, and even proffered its sanction or justification (cf. the work of John Hedley Brooke).

    As Feyerabend also said, “Scientific results and the scientific ethos (if there is such a thing) are simply too thin a foundation for a life worth living.”

    Well, I just wanted to get the conversation started, as these are rather large questions…that can be approached from many angles.

  2. Patrick, I like what you say and I mainly agree! In one place I may disagree. You say “Instead of ‘continuity’ [with the content and methods of the sciences] I think the only constraint should be non-contradiction, a weaker and softer if not more flexible naturalist constraint.” I suspect that one attraction of nonnaturalism (whatever nonnaturalism might be) about topic X is that nonnaturalism seems to guarantee that whatever we end up saying about X, we won’t contradict the natural sciences because we’re not talking about natural stuff. So I think not contradicting the sciences may be too weak a constraint to count as naturalistic.

    I don’t know if there’s an anciently belabored distinction or concept that recalls our notion of empirical natural science, or any of the other distinctions that hang around naturalism. There’s some concern with a natural/artificial distinction. Crafts are almost sciences – especially if one is innovating in them, not regarding them as gifts of the sages. But one might tend to associate crafts with the artificial rather than the natural.

    …unless one distinguishes, as Plato does, between real and fake crafts. Fake crafts include flattery and fancy cooking: giving pleasure without that which pleasure is supposed to represent. That’s one possible reading of the “The five colors make one’s eye blind” etc at Daodejing 12: if you pay attention to the look of a thing, you miss the thing itself.

  3. Bill,

    I’ll think more about your “constraint” comment, as I did rather quickly compose my thoughts (I know, not very philosophical of me) in response to this post. I’ve been elsewhere of late, as I informed Manyul, but I’ve tried to keep up on some of the ongoing conversations here, although sometimes they’ve been too technical (i.e., humbling) for me to have anything of worth to say.

  4. Glad you’re back, Patrick.

    Insofar as there are theories or conceptual schemes in old Chinese thought that are supposed both to explain the cosmos and direct our thought and action, would that be evidence of naturalism or simply evidence of lacking the naturalism/nonnaturalism distinction – or neither?

  5. Patrick, you’re quite right that we need to distinguish between empiricism and science. I’m not so sure that either substantive or methodological naturalism “takes a side” on this, though it seems important to do. As you suggest, normal science often does go beyond empirically bound method, at least if empiricism is narrowly construed, say, as some kind of positivism about the meanings of statements.

    Naturalism seems to be a philosophical attitude that’s been adopted by many as a result of Quine’s influence (from “Epistemology Naturalized” and other pieces). To that extent, we should probably think of the constraints within it as provided more generally through continuity with science, or better, “the sciences”–in “the web of belief” model–as opposed to narrow empiricism directly. On the Quine model, even the sciences don’t have immovable status in the center of the web of belief. Nothing has sacred-cow status, though the web of belief can’t be rearranged too radically at any given time, since the network of inferential relationships is extensive throughout the web.

    I don’t know, does that water down naturalism too much for it to be a significant or useful term of analysis? If it does, maybe that’s a problem for using it to analyze the early Chinese milieu as well.

  6. Here’s something from Nivison that might be useful to discuss, from his piece on Dai Zhen and Zhang Xuecheng, wherein he describes “some (not all) possible and at various times held views of the place of morality in the universe” (1996, 272-3). there are two “Naturalisms” he describes:

    Teleological Naturalism The universe (whether God-like or not) is not a giver of explicit commands; however, the universe is not morally neutral either. It has a sort of teleological structure; it produces humans disposed to formulate and follow moral rules–not just any rules, but the right ones–and thereby indirectly creates the moral order. Certain forms of the this position may allow the universe to be moral in other ways as well: e.g. favoring humans when they behave morally, or itself exhibiting processes (e.g. “productiveness”) which are felt to be structurally similar to human moral behavior (e.g. “benevolence”). [Winky-face not in original; should be right-parenthesis]

    Constructivist Naturalism The universe just is, devoid of anything like intention toward humans, who nonetheless are natural products of the causal processes of the universe. However, humans are so constituted, and so situated in relation to other things and animals, that they have needs (outer-economic or inner psychological or both) which can only be satisfied by a social-moral order, which they therefore either evolve or invent (if the latter, somehow accepting for themselves the rules they invent not just as counsels of prudence but as moral obligations). But the difference between right and wrong, and good and bad, is still a real one. Moral statements have truth value for us insofar as what they enjoin is, at least for us and for now, necessary for any mode of life a person fully enlightened as to his or her own needs would choose. And although we are not predisposed toward any particular standards, we have the capacity to conceive of and accept a requirement as a moral one.

    This is interesting because Nivison creates these categories in order to describe Mencius (Teleological Naturalism) and Xunzi (Constructivist Naturalism). He calls them naturalisms, I think, in order to contrast them with Divine Command and what he calls Dissolved Theism.

    But Constructivist Naturalism has most in common with Nivison’s final two categories, Existentialism and Non-Cognitivism, it seems to me, because on all three of these conceptions the (non-human) universe is morally neutral. So, Nivison’s two broader categories, if you will, seem to be between concepts of morality which include (a) the morally involved universe (Divine Command, Dissolved Theism, and Teleological Naturalism) and (b) the morally neutral one (Constructivist Naturalism, Existentialism, and Non-Cognitivism).

    I think as it applies to our discussion, either Substantive or Methodological Naturalism would construe all the views in category (a) as non-naturalistic, and perhaps also Existentialism depending on how metaphysical a particular version’s conception of the self sounded. I’m not sure that Teleological Naturalism really should be called a “naturalism,” given the significance for moral theory of thinking that the universe is morally structured. But maybe that’s just a terminological dispute.

    Maybe the problem is with the concept of nature. It’s supposed to provide some sort of contrast, but the contrast can go in different directions: super-nature, sub-nature, non-nature, artifice, and there are probably more.

    I’m not sure where this is going yet, so I’ll let someone else direct me at this point.

  7. Hmm. It seems there are three main conceptions of substantive naturalism kicking around here. (1) One is physicalism. (2) Another is sort of a backing-off from physicalism that replaces “physical entities and concepts” with “entities and concepts that are respectable in modern (say, 2008) science.” But this second conception of substantive naturalism invites (3) a third conception, replacing “modern science” with “true science”.

    Now, ancient Chinese Teleological Naturalist, if she has a concept of science, might suppose that science will vindicate Teleological Naturalism, with whatever entities and concepts it needs. She will then be a substantive naturalist by the third conception. But we should say her view is not naturalistic. I don’t know which of those claims, hers or ours, might be relevant to the upcoming discussion. But I think Manyul may mean to signal above that it is the latter.

    (4) Constructive Naturalism is a fourth conception of substantive naturalism. It backs off from physicalism in a different way: it says morality can be explained in terms of a universe that does not, as a whole, have any intentions (or moral intentions, or quasi-intentions, or something like that). A Cartesian might almost think it’s the same as physicalism. But Constructive Naturalism does allow that certain parts of the universe have intentions (or whatever). This view raises questions about who is to count as the “we” whose survival is what grounds morality.

    As for methodological naturalism, I don’t feel I have much of a handle on it. My idea of the methods of the sciences, even the hard ones, gives prominent places to reflective equilibrium, mutual respect, aesthetic judgment (how elegant is my theory?), and sympathetic imagination (for the human sciences). I could test practical maxims by these, and against deliverances of my will or moral palette in more particular cases (analogous to observations) even if maxims and deliverances of my will can’t be true or false. Is that a naturalism?

    Someone might regard methodological naturalism as a version of conception (3) of naturalism above, inspired perhaps by discomfort with the word “true”.

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