China's First Philosophers?

I’m interested in the question of whether the Mohists were China’s first philosophers—both in what the question means, and in the answers that it might invite.

There’s a good case to be made that in at least one important sense, they were the first.

It’s widely agreed that the Mohists were the first to engage in sustained philosophical argument, and (this may be more controversial) the first to attempt to articulate the normative foundations of their dào.

There’s also good reason to think that it was the Mohists who first provoked other early Chinese thinkers to provide their dào with philosophical justifications. With few exceptions, non-Mohist texts that include such justifications are clearly responding to a philosophical context, often with named opponents. But no such context is apparent in most of the writings of the early Mohists, particularly in those texts that seem earliest (such as the shàng books on war and inclusive care): these texts either do not mention ideological rivals at all, or identify them quite generally as the rulers or gentlemen of the world—not as other philosophers. The implication: philosophical argumentation was original only with the Mohists.

So if we conceive of philosophy in such a way that it essentially involves philosophical argumentation, then it is likely not only that the Mohists were China’s first philosophers, but also that it was precisely their arguments that provoked other early Chinese thinkers to take up philosophy: the Mohists were not only the first in chronological terms, they also provoked the rest.

Is this conclusion correct? How significant is it? What other ways of conceiving of philosophy would lead to different conclusions? Does the possibility of conceiving of philosophy in other ways mean that it is a mistake to wonder who did it first?

45 replies on “China's First Philosophers?”

  1. Dan, I agree with your position that the Mohists were China’s first philosophers. I don’t entirely follow the line of thought in your middle paragraph (the longest one) though.

    The implicit principle you are invoking there seems to be: “if a text is arguing its position against named opponents, then philosophical argumentation does not originate with that text.” And the contrapositive as well: “if philosophical argumentation originates with a text, then the text would not argue its position against named opponents.”

    Is this a plausible principle at all? Let me know if I am reading you uncharitably.

    Isn’t it a feature even of the later Mohist canons that Mohists do not name their opponents? Graham appears to believe that this is because Mohists in general tend to consider arguments on their own merits without naming their proponents. Then Graham quotes the following episode to illustrate his point:

    Mozi, when disputing with Chengzi, cited something from Confucius. Chengzi said: ‘You are no Confucian, why do you cite Confucius?’ Mozi said: ‘This is something of his which is dead right and for which there is no substitute….’ [Mozi, Ch.48, translation in Graham (1978), p.25]

  2. Boram, let me fill in the argument a bit.

    I’d agree with this restatement of the principle you suggest: if a text defends its position against the arguments of rival philosophers, then philosophical argumentation is not original with that text.

    This version of the principle does not mention the practice of explicitly naming one’s opponents. You’re right that this is not essential to engaging with a philosophical context, and that the Later Mohists in particular argued against rival views without naming the people who held those views.

    Still, when a text does refer by name to its opponents, this can help us figure out what sort of context the text is addressing. If the text takes issue with what the Mohists said, then it’s a fair bet that its engaging a philosophical context. If, on the other hand, it argues against the rulers and gentlemen of the world, that implies quite a different sort of context. When it argues against someone we’ve not otherwise heard of (such as Wumazi in Mozi 46), the name doesn’t really help; we just have to look at what the text tells us about the opponents.

    Also, I don’t understand your argument (if that’s what it’s meant to be) against the principle you suggest. The principle is consistent with the fact that it is possible to engage in argument against other philosophers without naming them. What seems wrong with it to me is that it’s possible to argue against named opponents who are not themselves engaged in philosophical argumentation.

  3. Dan, thanks for the clarification, and the principle you’ve stated is plausible. The problem I had with the principle I suggested earlier in Comment #2 is that I couldn’t think of any grounds for thinking it true (because it certainly seems possible for a text to originate philosophical argumentation by citing reasons against a rival position–as you suggest). But the principle you state in Comment #3 does seem obviously true.

    Moving on to another matter, perhaps it will clarify things to distinguish between different types of argumentation, say between providing justification for one’s own position on the one hand, and engaging in disputation with other schools on the other hand.

    It seems to me that the rules of disputation get formulated as a result of debate taking place between different schools of thought. I tend to see Zhuangzi in Ch.2 “Qi Wu Lun” as a sort of historian of ideas, indicating for instance how debate between the Ruists and Mohists results in the formulation of LNC (Law of Non-Contradiction) and LEM (Law of Excluded Middle).

    Now I agree with you in the sense that the early Mohists were the first to try to provide justification for maintaining their own position. But I am not entirely sure that the Later Mohists are the only ones to formulate the rules of disputation. Perhaps they were the common property of different schools, rules by which to wage a war of words, and to determine the winner or the loser in a debate. Now I’m just speculating, but it will be interesting (for me at least) to know what do you think.

    Incidentally, it seems to me, the principles first formulated as rules of debate, such as LNC, LEM, and extension or tui, come to be utilized in the project of providing justification for one’s own position. The Later Mohist canons seem to be engaged in such a project of providing a deeper foundation for the Mohist doctrine of jian ai and so on. The idea of extension seems to plays an important justificatory role in Mencius’s moral theory.

  4. Dan,

    Two types of possible competitors for the title “China’s first philosophers” come to mind, based on the principles you articulate.

    First, the *other* groups that at least Mencius either mentions or discusses aside from the Mohists: the Yangists and the Agriculturalists (Shennong followers). We don’t really have any surviving literature by them (unless the Daodejing is an echo of Shennong’s teachings), but they might also have had justifications for their daos, given that Mencius seems compelled to argue against them. That’s slightly weak, but nonetheless a possibility that can’t be dismissed too quickly.

    Second, while it is true that no one refers to “the Junzi school” of thought (i.e. Sima Qian and son did not) the Mohists do concern themselves with refuting the arguments of “the junzis of the world.” So perhaps that represents a sustained philosophical view that the Mohists felt they had to respond to as part of an existing philosophical context. Maybe that’s weak too but again, I think you’d need to say something more about it than that the Mohists did not refer to them “as philosophers”–what would that even mean in the period?

    An unrelated point: Like you, I also wonder what’s at stake for us in settling the question of who deserves this title.

  5. Boram, what are you thinking of as attempts at justification that aren’t directed at rivals schools? If we’re talking about attempts to set out fundamental (one-thread style) justifications, then the (early) Mohists are the only example I know. If more ad hoc arguments count, then there’ll be lots of other examples, I guess.

    I do agree that the Mohists’ understanding of argumentation gets more sophisticated over time, and that this most likely occurred in part because of debates with rival philosophers. But once those debates get started, I’m not sure how to distinguish attempts at justification from arguments against rival philosophers. One that philosophical discourse gets started, isn’t it always going to be a point of reference?

    Manyul, there’s plenty of evidence in the Mencius (though it’s mostly confined to books 3, 6, and 7) that an advocate of some dao would be able to provide arguments in support of it, and respond to rival arguments. But isn’t this significantly later than the earliest Mohist texts, even if we date it all to Mencius’s lifetime? (Aside: I’d have thought the texts that are most likely to represent the agriculturalist point of view are the primitivist chapters of the Zhuangzi.)

    You’re right that there may have been other people who tried to defend their views in fairly systematic ways as early as or earlier than the Mohists; our evidence is incomplete, and we don’t really know how incomplete it is. Still, I don’t see any sign that the early Mohists were aware of any such rivals.

    The early Mohists were arguing against various customary practices and values, especially elite practices and values, and as one might expect they encountered resistance. I take the objections that the early Mohists faced from the gentlemen of the world to be expressions of that resistance. But in referring to these people as gentlemen (or as officials, or as rulers), the Mohists were identifying them as men holding social and political power, not as adherents of rival philosophical traditions; and, to my eyes anyway, the arguments that the Mohists attribute to them do not suggest attempts to provide more than ad hoc justification of custom. (And in any case, there are still those books, quite likely the earliest in the Mozi, that do not engage with rival views at all.)

    As for the stakes, I suppose for me part of the interest of the question is that it underscores the importance of the Mohists.

  6. Dan, yes you are right that justification of one’s position and debate with those holding other positions become hard to separate once the schools start arguing with one another. But surely an argument made in support of one’s position can be distinguished from an argument directed against one’s opponent, even if the latter argument flows from the former, and the former argument is made in response to the criticisms of opponents.

    My impression is that Chinese philosophers after the early Mohists, and especially after the Yangists, started looking for deeper foundations on which to rest their positions than mere appeals to authority. Such foundations would provide direct reasons for their positions, and arguments against opposing schools would arise out of the foundations.

    An example: Mencius could take his foundation to be the love felt towards one’s own kin, and respect felt for one’s own elders, which is judged to be universal. Then these incipient dispositions can be extended to similar but more distant cases to become benevolence and rightness. Relying on this foundation, Mencius can argue against the Mohist Yi Zhi (3A5) that he is wavering ambiguously between two incompatible bases (the basis for impartial concern and the basis for graded concern). And Mencius could argue against Gaozi that benevolence and rightness are internal, not external (6A1~6). The foundationalist justification of Mencius’s position, and the criticism of opposing positions, are closely connected, but it seems to me that they can nevertheless can be distinguished. The former (foundationalist justification) can be used without the latter (criticisms of Yi Zhi and Gaozi)… say by the Neo-Confucians, who faced different challenges.

    Similarly for the Yangist position, based on human nature: the Yangist criticism of Mohists and Confucians stem from that basis. Perhaps something similar is going on with Song Xing, except that we don’t know much about his position and how exactly to piece together the different theses associated with his name.

    Another example: Xunzi in his Zheng Ming chapter. There I think he seems to be building up from the foundations to support the Confucian position on rectifying names, and then attacking other positions. There, for instance, he lays down “the purpose of having names”, “the evidence for assimlating and differentiating”, and “the pivotal requirements for instituting names”. For instance, clarifying the distinction between the noble and base is part of the purpose of having names. Once this is established, Xunzi criticizes Song Xing’s position, “To be insulted is not disgraceful” as the result of confusion about the use of names.

    I think the later Mohist canons are doing someting similar to Xunzi in the Zheng Ming chapter, (perhaps Xunzi picked it up from them), but in a more complicated and obscure way.

    I don’t know where I’m going with all this (just responding to Dan). But it’s certainly a lot more fun than grading my students’ papers….

  7. I have a candidate for an earlier published philosophical arguer.

    It seems to me that Youzi (You Ruo 有若) in Analects 1.2, 1.12, and 1.13 presents, albeit economically, four parallel arguments pertaining to virtues (or, perhaps more precisely, the good practices that are their exercise). The structure of each argument is this:

    1. The forms of our immediate interactions tend to be copied in the forms of our broad relation to society at large.

    2. Recognized Virtue X for immediate interactions is relevantly analogous to Recognized Virtue Y for broader matters.

    3. Cutting corners of X in the interests of Y or the aims of Y will not work.

    4. We should do no such cutting.

    In 1.2, X = filiality and fraternity, and Y = ren 仁 or the way of the junzi. The common form is care and respect.

    In 1.12 the good practices in question are practices of a community rather than an individual: X = ritual and Y = social harmony. The common form is cooperation on one thing.

    In the first couplet of 1.13, X = trustworthiness and Y = justness or morality (yi 義), and the common form is that each involves verbal professions one is willing to accept from different standpoints (for trustworthiness, future standpoints; for justness, other people’s standpoints or one’s own future standpoint when and if the tables are turned).

    In the second couplet of 1.13, X = personal respectfulness (gong 恭) and Y = ritual propriety, and the common form is something like respect.

    I think these arguments probably originated in or near the 470s BCE.

    Further details in the October PEW.

  8. Hi Dan, Boram, Manyul et al.:

    I’d tend to finesse Dan’s questions by working around them or by specifying how we’re using some of the terms involved. I do think that philosophy can be done in ways other than by giving explicit arguments. I think, for instance, that there is philosophy in the saying attributed to Youzi in Lunyu 1:2 (though perhaps not in the saying attributed to Kongzi in LY 1:1).

    On the other hand, I don’t see that it’s even open to question that the Mohists invented the argumentative essay in China, were the first to provide explicit arguments for their views, were the first to develop an explicit methodology of justification, were either the inventors or the first to articulate much of the conceptual framework of early Chinese thought, were the first (in the world, perhaps) to develop an explicit normative theory, and so forth. That they were the first to do these and other philosophically relevant things is enough, I think, to answer the historical questions about their importance that Dan raises.

    Remember, too, that the first “philosophers” in the Western tradition haven’t left any detailed arguments. Thales gets called the first philosopher in the West, but there’s no evidence of any careful argumentation for his thesis that water is the fundamental principle of everything.

    Who ends up being called “the first X” often depends on contingent events that happened after that person’s lifetime, and the person himself might not have recognized himself as doing “X.” I suspect this is the case with Confucius. If we think of him as China’s first named moral thinker, this is probably partly due to the influence of Mencius and others who assigned him that role.

    By contrast, the Mohists seem to have been self-consciously doing the sort of thing that we consider philosophy. In that sense, they are probably China’s first philosophers.

    Dan, when you ask about the significance of the Mohists’ role, do you mean to suggest that without the Mohist stimulus, Ruism might have just gone along in Analects mode indefinitely, without the explicit theorizing we see in Mencius and Xunzi? I’d tend to say: as a matter of contingent historical fact, it’s the Mohist protest against certain practices of “the gentlemen of the world” — primarily warfare and frivolous expenditures that waste taxpayers’ money — that get philosophical discourse underway. I’m pretty allergic to counterfactual speculation, but it seems reasonable to think that even without the Mohists, others would have got the discourse going. I’m thinking of the Agriculturists, Song Xing and Yin Wen, Yang Zhu, the various Daoists mentioned in Bk. 33 of the Zhuangzi, Hui Shi, and the various Zhuangzi writers. (Think too of all the books listed in the Han Shu Yi Wen Zhi that are now lost.)

  9. 3 above should be:

    3. Cutting corners on X for the sake of Y will not work, will not have the desired result.

  10. Chris, what you say seems to me right. Maybe the Confucians would have done more sooner if Youzi hadn’t been (as Mencius and Sima Qian suggest) booted out of the group!

  11. Bill, an intriguing thing about the Youzi materials, few though they may be, is that there are indeed hints of a general principle or doctrine in them, along with arguments, and that these features are considerably less common or prominent in “Confucius” material. Compare LY 1:2 with what, for instance, the Brookses take to be the earliest material in LY, the sayings of “the master” in book 4. LY 1:2 is much more indicative of a systematic doctrine (and in my opinion is more interesting).

  12. Bill, that’s very interesting! What would you say, though, about the Brookses dating the passages you cite to two centuries later than you suggest? Anyway, I will be looking forward to the PEW article.

  13. Hi Boram. My picture, which I think I can sort of support (Chris would emphasize some of those words), is that Youzi never studied with Confucius, but joined the group after Confucius died, when the group was in grief and disarray. The Li Ji shows him soliciting Confucius’ sayings from disciples. Mencius tells us that some disciples wanted to make Youzi their master, and Sima Qian says they did that for a while. Bk 1 as a composition seems designed to suggest the Youzian outlook, an outlook we don’t find expressed elsewhere by Confucius. The Brookses have a good argument that this book is a composition: they adduce the fairly even interspersal of statements by Confucius and statements by others. I think we can find other kinds of structure too. Mencius tells us Zengzi was against Youzi being Master, and Sima Qian says Youzi lost the position when he couldn’t duplicate Confucius’ magical expertise. So I think it’s likely that Youzi got the Analects rolling with Bk 1. When Youzi fell out of favor, the group returned to its focus on Confucius, and so did the Analects.

    As for the Brookses’ particular arguments about Youzi’s passages, here’s what I remember offhand.

    1.2 they read as an argument for docility, so they associated it with a late and chastened stage of the movement. Presumably that’s because they see the operative analogy in the opening lines as an analogy between family hierarchy and social hierarchy. For various reasons I think 1.2 should be read differently: love and respect for family elders is the natural root of love and respect for people in general. I think you have a similar view.

    1.12 they take to be late because it uses the phrase “way of the ancient kings” (先王之道), which they peg as specificially Xunzian. But we find that phrase in Mencius too, and even if we didn’t the argument seems to me very weak on its face.

    1.13: Their main specific comment is that they take the last couplet to refer to a specifically feminine virtue, though I don’t recall their arguing explicitly from that point to lateness. They follow the tradition that this couplet is about marriage. I think the couplet is using kinship metaphor to sum up the arguments of the first two couplets about the relations between the pairs of virtues.

  14. One of my paragraphs above may raise new issues in chaos theory, but I hope these don’t sidetrack us from Dan’s points about the Mohists.

    Only I wonder if there’s any disagreement here on his points.

    I think his main point is important for philosophy curricula in the West, even and especially the service courses that everyone in the university has to take. Dan’s point, if properly taken up, can have the practical effect of drawing attention to the fact that big chunks of the Mozi, suitably translated, might make nice early readings for introductory philosophy courses anywhere, taken simply as arguments rather than as exotica. Confucianism is not a prerequisite, and the Mozi feeds smoothly into more advanced discussions of utilitarianism. (Bentham is than the Mozi, and my American students tend to find Mill overwhelmingly complex in thought and syntax.)

    That is, I think Dan’s point may go a long way toward helping e.g. Americans regard Chinese thought as “us” (like the Greeks) rather than “them”. I get very excited about that.

  15. Dan, et. al.

    On what’s at stake, or the “importance of the Mohists”: Their philosophical effects on Mencius and his followers seem high on felt urgency (i.e. Mencius seems worried, at least in Book 3; not so much in Book 7), but lower on edification (i.e. the Mencian arguments don’t seem quite as competent). Apart from that, the Mohists’ philosophical importance in terms of impact still seems low even if they are given the first philosophers of China wreath. Maybe we could cite Xunzi as a better “student” of the Mohists because he seems very much to be a systematically consequentialist thinker; but Xunzi’s philosophical importance in his day and immediately following is dubious.

    A radical suggestion: By the criteria Dan spells out, until the modern era, let me hazard that the Mohists seem like the first and *only* philosophers (excluding Mencius, Xunzi, and Wangchong) narrowly, but in an important modern sense, in terms of attempting to provide arguments “contra gentiles”–arguments designed to convince “nonbelievers” by beginning with a base of presumptively common beliefs and/or goals. Is that too radical? Were there Buddhists who provided *arguments* contra gentiles? Did the neo-Confucians?

  16. Boram, it looks like we read the Mencius quite differently. (I don’t think it ever looks to psychology to justify normative claims.) I’m also not sure about the Yangists. Who do you think they were? I tend to think they’re somewhere over on the Zhuangzi side of things, but don’t see how to get more specific than that. For Xunzi, I think the spur to go deeper likely came in part from someone who, as he saw it, overemphasised nature; this is how he characterises Zhuangzi’s views, but maybe Yangists are also in there somewhere. (I’ll try to reply to one or two of your other points when I have a bit more time.)

    Bill, suppose you’re right about Youzi (with respect to both interpretation and chronology). Do you see him having any influence on how philosophy was conducted by others? If not, then he might end up being first in chronological terms, but my arguments in the original post were meant to go further than that.

    Chris, I tend to agree with you that if the Mohists hadn’t come along, someone else probably would have. One question: you say that the Mohists “were either the inventors or the first to articulate much of the conceptual framework of early Chinese thought”; which do you think it is? I lean in the direction of saying “inventors” for much of it.

    Manyul, I’d take the Mohist influence on Mencius to be evidence more in doctrine (especially benevolent government) than in argument; as I read it, there just isn’t much normative argument in the Mencius. On Xunzi, what’s your basis for questioning his philosophical importance (I assume you mean his influence)? As for your radical suggestion, I don’t know the later tradition well enough to pick out counterexamples (scanning Wing-tsit Chan’s Source Book for philosophers he considers shallow and unimportant might find one or two), but there were others in the Warring States period besides the ones you mention (see Chris’s list in #9).

  17. Dan, No, I don’t see any evidence of influence of Youzi’s general conception or practice of argument in later texts. Those features of Youzi aren’t salient in Youzi anyway.

    Ideas that look like Youzi’s figure in later arguments. One is the analogy between filial piety and ren 仁 start of Mozi 25.

    The idea of seeking parallel psychological underpinnings for the several cardinal virtues is something Mencius might have got from Youzi.

    Mencius’ idea that rulers should think of themselves as sharing goods with the people is something Youzi’s 12.9 might have suggested to him.

    Youzi’s central idea that good behavior in public life is good behavior in face-to-face interaction writ large, seems to be a central theme of Mencius’ analogies.

    Mencius’ idea that filial piety is central to ren seems to come from Youzi.

    One of Mencius’ arguments seems to derive from a whole argument by Youzi. I mean Mencius’ argument from barley in 6A7, which looks like a later draft of something Mencius attributes to Youzi at the end of 2A2.

    But I don’t see any reason to think Mencius learned anything about arguing from Youzi.

  18. I’m curious to know what “sustained” means in “sustained philosophical argument.” Confucius says, “When I have pointed out one corner of a square to anyone and he does not come back with the other three, I will not point it out to him a second time” (7.8, tr. Lau). The Mohists, I take it, just want to fill in all the corners. To disqualify Confucius as “first” because his method of instruction entails that his teachings don’t meet our length requirement seems pretty arbitrary to me.

  19. Bill, I was more wondering if you thought Youzi might have provoked other attempts to find the single thread that runs through a whole teaching.

    Tim, is there any reason to think that when you’ve figured out all four of Confucius’s corners, what you’re left with involves philosophical argumentation in any way? (Of course it might be philosophical in some other sense.)

    Also, length isn’t really the issue. The Mohists seem to have tried to make explicit the most fundamental reasons for adopting their dao, and later in the Warring States we find other philosophers doing the same. Making things explicit requires length, and thus probably requires forms of writing quite different from what we find in the Analects. (This is why it’s significant that, as Chris pointed out in #9, the Mohists seem to have invented the argumentative essay.)

    The passage you cite actually rejects the goal of making things explicit. It addresses people who already accept that Confucius’s (or whoever’s) teachings are basically correct, and who are trying to master the teachings. The implied context is one in which justification, of the sort that the Mohists engaged in, was not called for.

  20. I think I’m with Tim, or at least want to push back a bit: why is the “argumentative essay” more “philosophical” than a Tao Te Ching poem? Is is simply a matter of style; i.e. the essay lays out all the various steps of an argument, while the poem is suggestive and elusive and…that is the point re: the Taoist “tao” right? I know, early Mohists came before the Tao Te Ching, so do they win the “first” prize? But I would make the same case for the Lun Yu. The “normative foundations of their tao,” as Dan said in the original post, require that the reader work through the entire text and extract the best meaning for ethical action. You have to work at it and do it, you cannot simply absorb it as a matter of explication. That is the normative foundation. Why shouldn’t that count as “philosophy”?

  21. I worry that you are judging Confucius’ philosophical merits according to a standard that he himself rejects. He simply values reticence more than we do: since Heaven doesn’t speak at all, the less we ourselves speak the better (17.19, among others). So why count him out because his method of exposition is consequently different from ours?

    Also, Book 4 of the Analects provides a number of fundamental reasons as to why one should be a person of ren, doesn’t it?

    Finally, the question of whether C was the first Chinese philosopher might depend on his manner of instructing his students. Did he want his students to simply master his teachings, or did he accept debate and criticism of these teachings? If the latter, then I think we’d have to count him as the first philosopher. One support for this latter view is that occasionally it is his students who are instructing him; another is what he says about learning and thinking being inseparable (2.15).

  22. Sam and Tim, I think you’re missing my various qualifications: it’s not that the (early) Mohists were philosophical, or had more philosophical merit, in some absolute sense, but that given a particular conception of philosophy, one that places a great deal of weight on argumentation, they were doing philosophy, and their contemporaries were not. This was meant to leave open the possibility that others (such as the various Analects authors) were doing philosophy, only philosophy conceived in some other way.

    That said, I also don’t think that the differences between how the Analects and the Daodejing (on the one hand) and the Mozi (on the other) engage in philosophy are simply a matter of “style” (Sam) or “method of exposition” (Tim). There are fundamental differences in what these texts are up to; the Analects and the Daodejing are not just less explicit than the Mohist texts, what they’re leaving implicit is generally not the sort of thing that the Mohists made explicit in their arguments.

    Tim, section 4.15 (on the one thread) is a good example of an Analects passage that is trying to relate everything to one (well, two) fundamental value, but I don’t see anything similar in the rest of book 4. (I take 4.15 to be a fairly late passage within the Analects; as an attempt to sum up the philosophy of the Analects as a whole (or even just of book 4), it’s pretty implausible, and I take seriously the fact that the passage doesn’t have Confucius himself state the one thread.)

  23. I guess the question, then, is: why should we limit ourselves to “a particular conception of philosophy”? Just so we can go mano-a-mano with the Greeks?

  24. Sam, I didn’t say anything about limiting ourselves; it’s more a question of being precise.

    Here’s one reason why it makes sense to set things out the way I have. At some point, early Chinese philosophers did start to engage one another in argument. This is something that any interpretation of the period’s philosophy should take into account, not just for the sake of intellectual history, but because it affects how we read the period’s texts (since figuring out what a text is saying is inevitably bound up with figuring out who it’s addressing and why). So the distinctions I’m drawing matter; and working with a particular conception of philosophy seems a reasonable way to set out those distinctions.

  25. Dan, to your question in #24, I don’t think Youzi proposed or defended any unified theory of ethics or fundamental principle of morals.

    I think it might make sense to regard him as working in that direction. I think his lines of thought were the sorts of lines that help greatly in such an enterprise, since (with a little license) one could describe him as explaining away a broad class of apparent conflicts between particular duties and grand principles. (In my own one-thread work I find Youzi very helpful.)

    If there’s a trail he blazed (or widened) that others followed, it’s rather the idea of theorizing about moral psychology, I think.

    Dan, how far is the notion of working on a unified theory of ethics part of the notion of philosophy you’re using here?

  26. Dan,
    Thanks for initiating all this. I’m just worried about the old “China doesn’t have any philosophy” or “Chinese philosophy isn’t really Philosophy” thing flaring up. I know this isn’t your point, but what if some cruder types come along and say, “see, Robins is making our argument…”

  27. Sam, actually another reason why I like making the question more precise is it makes it easier to evaluate claims about whether China had philosophy (it did, given my way of making the claims more precise). Focusing on the Mohists might also provide a way in for some people who don’t get anything out of the Analects (which is not necessarily a crude reaction); though I personally usually start my proselytising with the Zhuangzi, and lots of people will find the Daodejing first.

    Bill, that’s a good question. Working on a unified theory certainly isn’t essential; if some philosophers are proposing unified accounts, others are bound to come along and reject the very idea of a unified account (see, e.g., MC 7A/26). But these activities (unifying and arguing) do seem to have gone together for the early Mohists, which is why I have been running them together. (Sorry for being so brief, but it’s been a long day of errands and grading, and I’m about out of steam.)

  28. Dan, here’s a follow-up for another day: I also meant to ask how far the notion of working specifically on ethics is part of your operative notion of philosophy (or operationalization of that notion for ancient China!).

  29. Bill, I can actually give a quick answer to that question: I’d normally say it was social and political philosophy rather than ethics, but whatever we call it, that’s just what happened to be first in China, as far as I know. (Did philosophical argumentation start with ethics in India or Greece? I’d believe you if you said it did in Greece, but I’d be surprised if that were true of India; but I’m far from an expert in both cases.)

  30. Dan, if I understand you, you’re saying the topic Ethics is accidental, not essential, to the conception of Philosophy you’re stressing in the current discussion. So that if Mencius entirely fails to philosophize about normative issues, that doesn’t disqualify him from being a philosopher.

  31. Dan, so far as published work goes, I think philosophical argument in Greece (Greece broadly construed) made its flashy entrance with Parmenides and Zeno. And they weren’t talking about anything at all.

  32. Bill, you’re right in #35. (I’d expect to get struck down by lightning or something if I put forward a conception of philosophy according to which the child-by-the-well argument doesn’t count as philosophy.)

    And thanks for the pointer on Parmenides and Zeno.

  33. I suppose what got philosophy going in Greece was commerce (introducing the intellectual excitement of numbers) and something resembling democracy (involving debate). Hardly an original point, of course.

    For China one thinks of history, poetry, and social concern. But maybe history and poetry weren’t such powerful engines for the Mohists.

  34. Hmm, wouldn’t it be sweet if the words to some Mohist songs turned up in a tomb somewhere? There almost had to be some.

  35. I always sing Bentham’s ditty to the tune of “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emanuel”:

    Intense, long, certain, speedy, fruitful, pure:
    Such marks in pleasures and in pains endure.
    Such pleasures seek, if private be thy end;
    If it be public, wide let them extend.
    Such pains avoid, whatever be thy view.
    If pains must come, let them extend to few.

  36. Dan, to pursue #38b, can one point to anything other than social concern that would have been an intellectual stimulus to the Mohists, pulling them toward philosophy?

  37. The only thing I can think of is that they really hated the elite culture of the time. But I would put social concern at #1.

  38. Crafts seem to have provided an important point of reference for them once they started engaging in philosophy, and it’s an appealing thought that their appeal to objective standards owes something to a crafts background. But that’s fairly speculative, and as far as I can remember craft references don’t show up in what may be the earliest texts in the Mozi (the shang books on war and inclusive care; Taeko Brooks has argued convincingly, though not so far in a public forum so far as I know, that these are the earliest Mohist texts).

  39. What got the Mohists going? I’d say look at books 17 and 14 of the Mozi: opposition to war (and the misguided values of the war-mongering elite) and concern about selfish disregard for others, crime, and feuding. Part of the opposition to war probably stems from moral indignation at the elite’s failure to see that military aggression is a wrong of the same kind as, though more serious than, murder and theft.

    (As Dan says, Taeko Brooks has argued that 17 and 14 are the earliest books. I tend to agree. I’m a bit unsure about 17, but I think 14 is very early.)

    The craft background I think eventually influences the Mohist solution to these problems, but it isn’t the initial motivation. Artisans would have been a social class likely to suffer special hardship because of the elite’s obsession with wars of conquest, though. So the craft background might have contributed indirectly that way.

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