Argument and Meta-Discourse

Over on Facebook, Stephen Walker and Robert Hymes got me thinking about meta-discourse in early China. Stephen imagined someone in China asking, or perhaps demanding, “Where are the arguments?” Robert suggested that it is perhaps impossible in classical Chinese to say “arguments” in the intended sense, so that someone might know what is being asked or demanded of him. (My thanks to them for stimulating the rest of this post. Maybe they will join in the discussion.)

I had a few initial responses to this, but I wanted to open up the discussion to others as well. Here are my thoughts:

(A) It is hard to know what term from the classical Chinese meta-discourse about language and rhetoric could do all and only the work that “the argument” in contemporary discourse does.

(B) Of course, one wouldn’t have to use meta-discourse simply to ask for a reason, some pattern of reasoning, or some other thing that might answer to “Why do you say that?” in English. One equivalent of “Why do you say that?” is he yan 何言, or simply 何.

There is another locution, an 安, which introduces more ambiguity–generality?–that is used for example in this Zhuangzi passage about the “Happiness of Fish” (魚之樂):


Zhuangzi and Huizi wandered to a bridge over the Hao River. Zhuangzi said, “See how the small fish meander to and fro. This is the happiness of the fish.” Huizi replied “You are not a fish; how do you know the happiness of the fish?” “You are not I,” retorted Zhuangzi, “How do you know my not knowing the happiness of the fish?” “I am not you,” conceded Huizi, “so I certainly do not know what you know. But you are certainly not a fish, so your not knowing the happiness of the fish is settled.” “Let’s return to the original question” suggested Zhuangzi. “You asked me whence I know the happiness of the fish. That shows that you already knew what I knew when you asked me. I know it from my vantage over the Hao.”

This is an interesting passage because Zhuangzi is depicted, I think, as being aware of the ambiguity of an 安; his answer at the end turns on interpreting Huizi’s question, not as “how do you know?”, which is what Huizi seems to intend, but as “from where do you know?”, (安 being one way to ask for the location of something in classical Chinese). That makes me also think:

(C) One could be aware of the different sorts of things someone is asking for with he 何, an 安, and other similar lexical items, without having an explicit/precise/unambiguous meta-discourse term for those sorts of things. Maybe one of those sorts of things Zhuangzi and others were aware of was “argument.”


10 replies on “Argument and Meta-Discourse”

  1. Hi Manyul,

    Thanks for the announcement the other day.

    Regarding the above:
    Don’t you think the question itself is problematic– not all that different from asking, Why did the ancient Chinee speak ancient Chinese? Can you post the link to the original conversation?

    But, yeah, like you, I agree that there are arguments formed in ways not all that dissimilar from classical arguments. 何、安 function that way (案)for starters and yes, there is usually a proposition, which is argued logically (maybe more use on analogy?) Even in modern Japanese, when I translate papers in the field of philosophy, I often times need to add the formal logical terms in– but they really are implied within the Japanese logic of the sentence. They are explicitly required in English semantics but are not in Japanese (where more ambiguity is semantically possible). Nonetheless, it is still a logical argument, just written in Japanese. I would guess that is the issue with fish.

    Anyway, I was just listening to a lecture on my ipod by a philosophy professor who teaches at our alma mater (you know our man in California) making a similar point that Asian philosophy should not be called philosophy at all as it is more like religion. He gave similar reasons but really wanted to stress the philosophy versus religion dichotomy (with which I disagree completely, obviously)

    For students especially, I thought this was a well-done philosopher’s zone program, by the way on this topic

  2. Hi Stephen,

    Not having seen the original conversation, it’s hard to really say, but just a quick response from here:
    1) Just because logical conventions are not explicitly required by semantic conventions does not mean there is no argument. In case above, Manyul added them in– when I translate modern Japanese philosophy I also “add” them to my English. Even going back to DDJ 60, you have introduction and argument and reasons (albeit they are by logical analogy) no?
    2) Honestly, I have no idea what you mean. Except I would just say that there is a difference between universal principles propounded as objective truth (religious) versus particularist claims based on commonsense and/or subjective truth. It is slightly ironic but I just finished translating a paper in modern Japanese which makes a similar claim about epistemological authoritarianism of the Western tradition.

    I will leave this to Manyul and the guys though since it’s hard to respond without specific examples– and in this case, I would need several!
    Cheers, Peony

  3. Wow, thanks, I was actually wondering about this. I have a paper on (Western takes on) this passage, and as someone with no Chinese, I wasn’t sure whether that ambiguity was in the original (I think I just assumed it was!). Now I’m wondering about what you have here as “Let’s return to the original question.” The translation I was using had “Let’s go back to where we started” – which I saw as another manifestation of the same ambiguity: “where” = the original question, or “where” = above the Hao river. Anyway, that’s how I took it, and on that reading Z. comes out as pretty clever, so by interpretive charity, … ?

  4. Hi Dave,

    You’re right. “Let’s return to the original question” is under-determined. The characters, more literally, read roughly as: “Let’s return to its root/origin” (qing3 xun2 qi2 ben3 請循其本). The character for “return,” xun2 循, has the “road” radical (彳); the line clearly could be trading on the same ambiguity, as you suggest. Very nice.

  5. If, by “argument,” you mean premise-premise-conclusion stuff, I don’t think you’ll find them addressing each other’s claims in this way. There’s no equivalent guiding light like the Socratic method in China to help explain how arguments are addressed. The deductive framework in ancient Chinese is not specifically addressed at length in any major document. I doubt there is a good word for a method of argument that the Chinese scarcely explicitly used.

    I believe that many major Chinese philosophers argue more in the way of “intuition pumps” (a la Dennett) to provide analogous, intuitively grasped points that refute a claim despite not rejecting a specific premise directly with additional, supplemental premises. I find a lot of Chinese philosophic storytelling works in this fashion. Intuition pumps are harder to refute without meta-dialogue because there are not plainly put premises to accept or reject. I find Chinese arguers have to spend a good deal of time fishing murky waters before they can make a good judgment on their catch. At least that’s how some of the commentaries seem to me.

    Manyul, (C) is right. You can refute a statement by invoking a true, but premise-refuting fact. There’s no need for meta-discourse in those cases.

  6. Joshua,

    I thought this comment was very helpful. The only question I would have is this:

    I do in fact see background + premise, premise= conclusion. I just find that the conclusions are generated by different means (the intuitive pumps ??) In any case, I am not sure I would agree that there are no formal premises or logical constructs. Just that perhaps they might not be semantically required in ancient chinese. This case above or better Manyul’s example on my blog of the grieving Zhuangzi… there are clear premises that can be “fished out” to stand as the basis of the conclusion… no?

  7. Thanks, Peony.

    There are some things to address in your statement, some formal and small, others on a bit grander philosophical scale.

    The first is to be sure not to treat premises and background assumptions (which are also premises, arguably) as a mathematical relation, as the propositions of mathematics, at least at its arithmetic level, speak in terms of identity statements, but deductive arguments do not have to work backwards in the same way (in logic, we represent this one-way transition with a different symbol, P1,P2 |- C1). That’s only an issue a formalist stickler like me wants to get out of the way, but I don’t think it’s of the greatest concern for your inquiry.

    The second, somewhat more important point, is that we want to be clear about what we’re treating as an argument, of which there are both natural and formal, syntactic and semantic, components, and of which a more philosophically tenable argument is one that can translate the natural syntax and semantics of language into a formal one, which is quite doable in Chinese. The terms and operations of a logic are supposed to be built from a finite set of absolute logical primitives, and those primitive terms and relations, even if not expressible semantically, can be sufficiently explained by means that can just as well compel the formulation of new terminology in the natural language.

    What I’m calling an “argument” is actually very narrow, so narrow, in fact, that your question won’t arise under such narrow, but popularly accepted definition.

    An argument is, strictly, an assertion of one or more premises that, under narrow rules of inference, imply a conclusion. I can reword this as a conditional statement (both formally and naturally) to say that an argument is a proposition that a conclusion is a necessary condition of at least one premise, and assuming more than one premise, the conjunction of those premises.

    With that in mind, you’ll see that you’re actually saying the same thing that I am: The premises have to be “fished out.” Chinese philosophers aren’t the only ones who illustrate their intended premises to make them more comprehensible, but the problem is that much Chinese work doesn’t take so much time to set up the premises as much as it takes the illustration as already grasped premises, and then simply jumps right to the conclusion. Now, the “intuition pump” works similarly, and a common factor you’ll see is this talk of “intuitive” versus “counterintuitive” talk made before any real premises are set (and it’s perhaps worst in our time in philosophy of mind and metaphysics). However, one’s intuitions are not the real constituents of real argument, just a medium of expression from which readers are expected to extract more pristine premises for evaluation.

    It’s that lack of extraction that I see in ancient Chinese texts written in the more allegorical fashion. It doesn’t mean that they don’t argue or employ formally valid logic with a good sense for affirming soundness, just that they don’t do it explicitly because the methods of formal argument were not so explicitly outlined as they were in the (at least) Aristotelian world. Analytic philosophers, I find, do this better and still manage to get all of the colorful intuition-pumping prose out, as well.

  8. Hi Joshua

    Thanks for the refresher on formal logic (seriously it’s been years). However, I stand by my main point (To Stephen) and that is that it is absurd to expect all languages to have the same semantic requirements (and I disagree that what is generated are more premises. I do think conclusions are generated in many of the passages that we are looking at). For as precisely as you said, the passages can be translated into other natural lanuage with 追加表現 or in the cases where the premises are not explicitely stated (in the way you hinted above) then to just explicitely state what is implied. Everything that has been said so far concerning Stephen’s point #1 boils down to issues of translation, in my opinion– and this includes meta-discourse.

    Regarding his issue #2– I am commenting elsewhere.

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