Warp, Weft, and Way

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

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.


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