Truth and Early Chinese Thought

Reading Alexus’s recent piece on Wang Chong (Comparative Philosophy 2.1) has gotten me thinking about truth and early Chinese philosophy again. I can’t take up Alexus’s interpretive claims, because I am not even a Wang Chong neophyte, but I want to offer a couple of thoughts anyway.

My point of departure for thinking about truth and early Chinese philosophy is Chad Hansen’s 1985 paper “Chinese Language, Chinese Philosophy, and ‘Truth'” (Journal of Asian Studies 44.3). Here is Hansen’s official thesis in that paper:

[C]lassical Chinese philosophers had no concept of truth at all. Of course, for Chinese (philosophers and laymen) the truth of a doctrine did make a difference, and, in general, Chinese did de re reject false propositions and adopt true ones. However, they did not “use a concept of truth” in philosophizing about what they were doing. (Hansen, “Truth,” 491)

Hansen presents this as a radicalisation of a view of Donald Munro’s:

In China, truth and falsity in the Greek sense have rarely been important considerations in a philosopher’s acceptance of a given proposition; these are Western concerns. The consideration important to the Chinese is the behavioral implications of the belief or proposition in question. What effect does adherence to the belief have on people? What implications for social action can be drawn from the statement? (Munro, The Concept of Man in Early China, 55; partially quoted in Hansen, “Truth,” 491)

Hansen radicalises these claims by saying that questions of truth were not just rarely important, they were never important. But his understanding of what’s at stake differ in important ways from Munro’s, and it is not clear that his view really is the more radical one.

Munro’s formulations suggest that early Chinese philosophers allowed pragmatic considerations to trump semantic ones, so that (for example) they might accept a view because it is useful, even knowing that it is false. Hansen however insists that though early Chinese philosophers did not think in terms of truth, they were nonetheless somehow sensitive to semantic considerations.

Consider the three standards the Mohists appeal to in their arguments against fatalism. Here’s one way to interpret the standards:

  1. 本 or 考: whether people’s actions affect outcomes in ways that fatalism entails they should not
  2. 原: whether people have believed in fatalism, and which people have believed in fatalism
  3. 用: what practical consequences would follow if rulers based policy on fatalism

(Caveat: the Mohists are not nearly as systematic in their presentation and use of these standards as I’m making them sound. But this is a reasonable way to classify the Mohists’ anti-fatalist arguments, and it aligns fairly well with their descriptions of the three standards at the heads of the anti-fatalism books.)

The first of these standards looks like a test of truth, but the other two do not. But they do look like they should often agree with the first test. When the Mohists argue that basing policy on fatalism would have bad consequences, they presuppose that fatalism is false. And when they discuss people who have endorsed or rejected fatalism, their concern seems to be with distinguishing people who likely have it right from those who likely don’t. (For example, ancient sage kings likely did, whereas people who use fatalism as an excuse for their own failings likely don’t.) Whatever having it right would imply here, it is unlikely to conflict with the other two standards so long as those are in agreement. So though the Mohists clearly aren’t conceiving of their standards together as a test of truth, in using the standards the Mohists likely would “de re reject false propositions and adopt true ones,” in Hansen’s words.

The Mohists do nonetheless seem to be concerned with truth when applying their first standard, and you might think that the most we should say is that they did not emphasise truth to the extent that a western philosopher likely would have. But Hansen nonetheless wants the more radical claim, that early Chinese philosophers never thought in terms of truth.

There’s a tricky point here, and I think it’s easy to miss. Hansen is really making two claims.

  1. Early Chinese philosophers tended conceive of their reasons for accepting or rejecting claims in pragmatic rather than semantic terms
  2. Early Chinese philosophers never distinguished sentence-like units of language or thought as having any special significance, and instead focused on sub-sentential expressions

These two claims are entirely independent, and it is the second one that gets Hansen his more radical conclusion. It gets him that conclusion because he assumes that only sentence-like units of language or thought can be true, so if a philosopher isn’t thinking in terms of sentence-like units, then she cannot be thinking in terms of truth either.

I won’t consider here the question of whether Hansen is right on these points, because this post is already too long. What I want to suggest, though, is that it’s misleading to think of Hansen’s view as implausibly extreme. The claim that early Chinese philosophers did without a concept of truth seems outrageous in large part because it seems to imply that they did philosophy without worrying about whether what they said matched up with how things really are—and it’s hard to imagine how they could have gotten away with that, given especially the practical focus of much early Chinese philosophy. But Hansen’s view doesn’t have this bizarre consequence. He insists that early Chinese philosophers were de re sensitive to semantic considerations even if they did not tend to think in those terms. And he gets his apparently radical conclusion primarily from a claim that is independent of the question of whether early Chinese philosophers were concerned with how things really are.

12 replies on “Truth and Early Chinese Thought”

  1. Hi Dan-
    great post! I think you’re right to point out that there are two distinct claims being made in Hansen’s paper. I disagree with both of them-the first for textual/interpretive reasons. I guess my paper makes that obvious, as I take Wang Chong to be an example, among others, of a pre-Buddhist Chinese philosopher who doesn’t take pragmatic considerations as central in evaluating claims, the second for both interpretive and linguistic reasons. Basically, I think it’s not the case that concern with sub-sentential expressions entails that one is not working with a concept of truth (whether or not it’s actually true that in general early Chinese philosophers were concerned mainly with sub-sentential expressions). This probably requires some explanation. Take this as a promissory note for more extensive comments to come soon…

  2. Hi Alexus,

    There’s actually a third distinct claim in the paper, about the insignificance of truth-telling in early Chinese ethics, but I’m not sure how that connects up.

    My sense is that a lot of people’s ideas about truth might be about the importance of semantics in general, and it can throw them off that Hansen relies on a strictly sentential conception of truth. Maybe it’s also hard to see the importance of the claim (which I do think is right) that early Chinese philosophers didn’t conceive of language or thought or norms or whatever as built out of sentence-like units.

    I’d agree that Hansen goes too far in some of his claims about the relative importance of pragmatic and semantic considerations for early Chinese philosophers. Hansen seems to say (on p. 509 of the truth paper) that even if a term satisfies an appropriate disquotation schema, it might be best understood pragmatically rather than semantically. I don’t buy it. When “dang 當” or “shi 是” or “ran 然” is used in a way that supports disquotation, it’s used as a term of semantic assessment.

    But the claim that there was greater weight placed on pragmatic considerations still has teeth. In the post I mentioned the Mohists’ treatment of fatalism as in part a practical doctrine, but it’s not just that particular example. In early Chinese philosophy, there was a tendency to think of language first and foremost in pragmatic terms. There was no tendency to account for human action in terms of semantically-assessable attitudes that could be strung together as if in an argument. There was no tendency to try to settle normative questions by doing metaphysics. And so on. All that is really interesting and really important.

    Admittedly I can only really speak to Warring States philosophy. I don’t find it hard to believe that Wong Chong for one did not conform to these tendencies.


  3. I’m glad you brought this up, Dan. Reading what you and Alexus have to say, and then reading over the relevant passages in Harbsmeier’s book on Language and Logic (volume VII:1 of Science and Civilization in Ancient China), makes me think that there is quite a consensus in place. If we can be clear about that consensus, we might be able to be more precise about what areas of controversy remain.


    1. Early Chinese thinkers took a predominantly, though not exclusively, pragmatic approach to language. (It is relevant that several of Harbsmeier’s clearest exceptions to this generalization come from Wang Chong.)
    2. Early Chinese thinkers were nonetheless concerned with truth de re.
    3. Furthermore, early Chinese thinkers had a range of terms that they used for semantic assessment (see esp. Harbsmeier, p. 201, which includes the three terms that Dan mentions).

    Harbsmeier also presents considerable evidence that early Chinese thinkers were explicitly concerned with the semantic evaluation of sentences and other linguistic expressions, and furthermore that we find some strong evidence in favor of clear and explicit conceptions of a “sentence” (again, it is striking that one piece of evidence comes from Wang Chong [p. 183]). Still, not having heard from Dan or others on this subject, I don’t know whether I can include it among the “consensus” items.

    It may be that Alexus actually disagrees with (1), but I’d need to hear a lot more to be convinced.

    If we agree on all the above, what remaining controversies can we locate in this general area?

  4. I think Hansen’s claims are problematic for Warring States philosophy as well. The Confucian zhengming, I think, illustrates the problems with both claims. Certainly zhengming aims at having the application of names leading to a pragmatic goal, but the evaluation of the names themselves is not pragmatically based. Zhengming is no more pragmatic than most western theories concerned with ethical truth, in that the truth ought to have practical value (this is just one of the features of truth that make it the kind of thing we should care about). Plato sought truth for the improvement of the state of the soul, Kant in order to discover normative rules, etc. I think we have to distinguish between the claims that 1) the early Chinese philosophers were mainly concerned with practical goals, and 2) they accepted something like pragmatism about truth. I agree that #1 is true (a concern they shared with the ancient Greeks!), but I doubt #2.

    Back to zhengming, for example—what makes a name acceptable cannot be its practical use. It would not be acceptable to apply the name ‘servant’ to the ruler, even if it had positive practical effects, because this is to be mistaken about the role of the ruler. Granted, in the early works like the Analects and Xunzi there is only limited evidence for this (Analects 12.11 seems to suggest something along these lines though), but this idea is developed further in the correlative period in the early Han, using the ming-shi 名實 distinction drawn from the Mohists (John Makeham offers an excellent account of the development of the view through Xu Gan in his “Name and Actuality in Early Chinese Thought”). And I think the early texts offer some ground for this view. The developments in early Han would have had to have been extremely radical, basically turning the tradition on its head, if we take pragmatism about truth to have been the dominant view in the Warring States. The Qiwulun of Zhuangzi would have been nonsense without an explicit concern with a non-pragmatic concept of truth, as well as the School of Names material.

    Which leads me to why I disagree with the second claim of Hansen’s you mention—that concern with sub-sentential expressions is inconsistent with concern with truth. Considerations of ming 名 did involve the notion of truth in a way that discussion about ‘names’ perhaps wouldn’t in most English discussions. Ming-shi (as it’s later developed, at least) takes names as being applicable based on the actuality inherent in an entity that can bear a name (so it’s the shi 實 of a particular person that makes it acceptable to apply the ming ‘father’ to him). Although here we have an example of a concern with sub-sentential expressions, it’s not the case that there’s thus no concept of truth at work (beyond simply a de re acceptance of claims that match up with actuality or rejection of ones that don’t). We could even translate the particular concerns about naming into English sentences that would be truth-evaluable, such as “x is a father.” But even more than this, what concern with ming often comes down to (especially for the Confucians) is a consideration of roles, so that to discover whether “x is a father” is true (matches with actuality, etc.), we have to also know the truth value of connected sentences such as “x provides for food and education for his children,” “x sets a positive moral example for his child,” and so on. The concern with truth would (and did, I think) arise here due to the epistemological difficulties connected with knowing whether a particular thing meets the standards for the application of a name. These difficulties are not as deep, of course, as those surrounding issues of being (is the world actually the way it appears to me?, etc.), as we see in the western tradition, but neither is the concept of truth implicit in much of the early Chinese tradition doing as much heavy philosophical lifting. This is just where I think Hansen and others are wrong. It’s not that the early Chinese had no concept of truth, that they didn’t think about truth de dicto (as Hansen argues), but rather that the concept of truth did not play as central a role as it did in much of western philosophy. It did become increasingly more important in time in Chinese philosophy, though. I suggest that the need for a more adequate concept of truth than what was available in most of the pre-Qin era was just what led to the Han development of the concept of shi 實 (including the ming-shi stuff, and what Dong Zhongshu, Wang Chong, Xu Gan, and others did with it).

  5. aha-

    I didn’t see your message before I posted my last comments, Steve!

    Indeed, I disagree with (1), but I think much of this has to do with my scope for “early Chinese thinkers.” If this is limited to Warring States and earlier, I might have to agree. Although even there, there are some important non-pragmatic approaches in play (as I mention in my comments above). Hansen’s scope seems to be “Pre-Buddhist” philosophy, which includes all of the Han, including the correlative movement in Early Han and then the late Han guys like Wang Chong and Xu Gan. Maybe an important question here is “just what happened in late Warring States/early Han to account for this shift away from the pragmatic approach? (assuming here that this is what actually happened, of course)

  6. So, I find Hansen, Munro, and others’ (say, Chris Fraser) arguments about the pragmatic emphasis at the level of argument and the subsentential emphasis at the level of analysis, largely convincing. I’ve always been a little puzzled about how having the concept of truth or being concerned with truth de dicto are affected by the arguments, however.

    There are probably lots of ways to construe pragmatic concerns as partly or even entirely dependent on de re concerns with truth. That can apply to de re concerns with the truth of statements or even the truth of statements that could be thought to ground acceptance of subject-property predication relations (which I think are the subsentential units in question — please correct me if I’m wrong). Behavioral implications are, after all, implications about what statements will truly apply to the behavior of people upon accepting a teaching. So, if Mozi or Mencius are wrong about the behavioral implications of a teaching, rejection of the teaching depends on de re concern with the truth that is tracked in the implication.

    Absence of de dicto concern with truth — as a concept? — doesn’t tell us too much about de re concern with truth. Does it?

    My tentative view is that what has to be shown about the early Chinese is that pragmatic concerns are mostly or never parasitic on ordinary, tacit de re concern with the truth of statements. Otherwise, the more sweeping claims about early Chinese thought being more pragmatically inclined versus truth inclined seem kind of unexciting. Not that I always need excitement — perhaps only from sweeping claims.

  7. 1.

    Dan, you write that only the first of the Mozi’s three standards looks like a test of truth. But the second standard looks to me like one of Aristotle’s tests of truth: respect for the opinions of the many and the wise. Of course, the second standard can be conceived otherwise than as a test for truth. Instead of respecting the opinions of the many and the wise, we could be respecting their pragmatic choices about which strings to “accept.”

    (The third standard is similar to a kind of experimental test of truth. For if we assume that acting on false views makes a mess of things, the fact that things have in the past gone well for people with view X is a point in favor of the truth of X. Of course, that’s not the test we’re applying if we’re just arguing about whether things would go well for people who believed X.)


    I would like to ask those who have looked into the pragmatic character of early Chinese texts: do the texts shed any direct or indirect light on how they might have answered the following question if it were presented to them?: Given that the acceptance of a proposition or statement or string is not the same as the belief that the proposition or string is true, what is the acceptance of a proposition or statement or string?

    It’s this sort of question that makes Hansen’s ideas exciting for me, Manyul.

    Standard 3 on Dan’s list suggests this answer: to accept a proposition or string is to use it in practical thinking as though one thought it were true.

    Another picture or proto-picture might be that to accept a string is to attend to it and associate oneself with it. The paradigm might be the choice of a set of personal slogans or yan, which is in some ways like the choice of a limerick for one’s T-shirt or the choice of a Chinese character to tattoo onto one’s arm. Analects 15.6: 子張問行。子曰:“言忠信,行篤敬,雖蠻貊之邦行矣;言不忠信,行不篤敬,雖州里行乎哉?立,則見其參於前也;在輿,則見其倚於衡也。夫然後行。”子張書諸紳.


    Hansen points out that we’re less likely to think of “truth” if we don’t attend to the distinction between sentences and other strings. He might say the same of the distinction between the indicative and the imperative; I don’t recall. To some degree the same might be said of a distinction between the literal and the metaphorical, a distinction whose apparent absence from early theory we’ve discussed before on WW&W.

    I wonder: is there a pre-Qin concept of fiction? Is there pre-Qin literature that would definitely have been considered fiction?

  8. Steve, if you’re talking about the examples Harbsmeier gives on pp. 182-183, then I don’t agree. That’s just Harbsmeier translating “辭” as “sentence” in some contexts, without explaining why he thinks that’s the right translation.

    Alexus, this is a bit awkward, but I’m not sure you’re really talking about truth. “x is a father” is not the sort of thing that can be true; it’s an open sentence that is satisfied by anything that’s a father. Satisfaction is a semantic concept, but it’s distinct from truth. Though, again, I suspect that for lots of people what matters is that the concern is semantic, not whether it’s about sentences.

    Manyul, does anyone say they weren’t making and endorsing and rejecting assertions? There was I think a tendency to think of assertions as applications of expressions to things, and thus as being correct when the thing satisfies the expression. (Sometimes at least I think this is clearly the right way to think about it. If I say, “Hey, a cat,” and you say, “Yeah, a cat,” it’s just confusing to try to explain what’s going on in terms of the truth of sentences.)


    1. I meant that’s not how the Mohists seem to be using those tests. They certainly don’t tell us that the third (“use”) test is meant as a sort of experiment. I think it’s just that they care not only if the view is true, but also if it makes a practical difference whether people are right about fatalism. (And I think the appeal to the sages is likely meant to address both issues.)

    2. The Mohists sometimes talk about people who uphold (執) a view. This involves more than believing it true, but also advocating it or teaching it, and basing policy and action on it. I know of only one case where they admit that a view might be beneficial but wrong, when they say that even if ghosts don’t exist the sacrifices to them still benefit.

    3. It’s part of Hansen’s view that early Chinese philosophers tended to stress language’s action-guiding role rather than its descriptive role, so yes, imperatives rather than indicatives. (What would you say is the illocutionary force of “The gentleman concentrates on what is right, the common person concentrates on what benefits 君子喻於義,小人喻於利”?)

    • It’s part of Hansen’s view that early Chinese philosophers tended to stress language’s action-guiding role rather than its descriptive role, so yes, imperatives rather than indicatives

      I’m not sure I follow. What I said, in passing, was merely that not attending to the distinction between imperatives and indicatives (these are grammatical terms) would make one less likely to develop a concept of truth. I hadn’t forgotten the antecedent point above about Hansen, and I didn’t mean to ask the question about relative stress. Or do you mean to suggest that it is impossible to distinguish between grammatical and substantive distinctions?

      If the Mohists conceived or explained執simply by a list such as you gave, in which “believing to be true” is one item, that would take the excitement out of their 執 for me! I guess it’s probably pretty easy to find things that early Chinese philosophers and other people talk about doing with strings in addition to thinking them true. What’s interesting to me is trying to think of what kind of general picture or image(s) of acceptance of strings that one could find at least initially plausible in liue of “believing (sc. to be true)” (which is after all only applicable to indicatives, such as the one you cite).

      Not that anybody else has reason to be concerned about what would excite me.

  9. Dan-
    My choice of phrasing probably caused some confusion–by “x is a father” I meant the x not as a variable but to stand for some specific person, for example “Confucius is a father”. Why couldn’t this be true? Whether Confucius satisfies the conditions for fatherhood is going to be related to the truth of related statements like “Confucius provides sufficiently for his children,” etc. My main point was that primary concern with names does not entail that there is no concern with truth, because concern with names is in general concern with whether they apply in specific cases (as in “Confucius is a father”).

  10. Ah, okay, I misunderstood that. But still, do you see a difference between “Confucius is a father” is true and Confucius satisfies “…is a father”?

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