Do China’s Traditions Make Chinese People Illogical?

Apparently there is a current meme in China alledging that Chinese people are too often illogical (and, instead, swayed by rhetoric, emotions, and politics) and that the cause of this may be the lack of concern for logical reasoning in China’s philsoophical traditions. Recently a journalist from the magazine Window on the Southern Wind 南风窗 interviewed well-known CASS philosopher Zhao Tingyang concerning these ideas.  The conversation is pretty interesting: Zhao suggests that too much attention to “dialectic” and too little training in logic–and, more generally, in critical reasoning–is the main culprit. He grants that early Chinese classics mainly were concerned with “thought 思想” rather than “theory 理论,” and adds that in this context:


…to have some inconsistencies between a few concepts would not be odd; and we should also consider, life itself is full of contraditions, therefore “thought” that seeks to express life and thus has some self-contradictions is actually in this way reflecting life. This is not to be illogical.

In light of all this, Joachim Kurz’s recent Discovery of Chinese Logic takes on added significance. (My review of Kurz’s excellent book can be found here.)

13 replies on “Do China’s Traditions Make Chinese People Illogical?”

  1. I have a host of questions regarding this exact area, but this touches right on a conversation that we had in person.

    We know that Confucians appealed to tradition, to a sort of golden age of their own pasts, to justify certain ethical stances and policies. However, by stark contrast, we philosophers are taught that the “appeal to tradition” is strictly fallacious because one cannot reason for a conclusion’s truthfulness on the basis of its prevalent assumption in a culture. That is, the Confucians make ample use of “P is assumed in our cultural history. Therefore, P.” However, that’s a strict no-no in logic, proper.

    I side with logical reasoning that disavows any cultural loyalties (for reasons similar to Feynman’s criticism of scientist’s hesitation in challenging Millikan’s results), but I wasn’t certain what exactly your stance was on that point.

    Do you believe that logic avows or disavows a certain cultural loyalty?

    To Zhao Tingyang’s meme in particular, I find that training in critical reasoning is just an omnipresent human deficit. My coworkers, friends, and so forth demonstrate the same deficits here (in Taiwan) as they do in the U.S. I don’t expect to find perfectly logical, finitely aware beings.

    Do you believe that, assuming no other constraints, expedience of a policy toward a certain end legitimizes that we disregard that policy’s logical consistency in preserving many sought ends?

  2. logic is “western”, yes? why should china, or india, or asia, be concerned with it beyond its practical value? logic and rationality as practiced in the west can take the form of near mental illness when taken to far. do the west’s traditions make western people incapable of perceiving wholeness and balance?

    • I would say logic is western only in the sense that mathematics is: there’s been more meta-discourse about it in the west than in the east. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t operate as the norm for reasoning outside of the west. Likewise, intuitive leaps that, well, leapfrog over discursive reasoning have their value both in western conceptions as well as eastern — again, no systematic conflicts indexed to western vs eastern approaches.

    • Gregory, I think I also want to add that wholeness and balance are good things to bring up here. Your comment brings into relief that there’s an aesthetic dimension to thinking. Aesthetic norms are a different beast from reasoning norms; also, in the pursuit of a certain kind of aesthetic, one might purposely flaunt or be critical of reasoning norms. Maybe that occurs more in eastern intellectual traditions than in western — not sure.

    • Isn’t this Needham’s proposed response to the Needham Question? Taiji and Wuxing are pretty explanatory models, but are scientifically inaccurate when compared against models that make no such dedications to them, so Chinese medical researchers, astronomers, agriculturalists, and the like spent inordinate amounts of time wangling ad hoc addenda to a model that simply didn’t fit the data, and so fell behind scientific revolutionaries in Europe who were willing to overturn flawed paradigms and to conceive better ones.

    • Hi Joshua. Yes. In the west, it seems like the history of ontological or theoretical simplicity/parsimony provides an interesting comparison — or contrast, given that scientific reasoning did advance. Maybe another piece of comparison might be the Kuhnian point that non-programmatic leaps of reasoning were sometimes the spur for advance in the west.

  3. The statement all cultures have members deficient in critical thinking is too obvious to need argument but not so second claim people across cultures ‘demonstrate the same deficits’. Cross-cultural cognitive psychologists have shown otherwise. For example, developmentalists demonstrated contrasts between Chinese and Western kids in False Belief task, among others. So that assertion requires justification. Joshua, what did have you in mind?

    FYI paper of interest:

    Sun Weimin. Chinese Logic and the Absence of Theoretical Sciences in Ancient China. Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy.

    In this essay, I examine the nature of Chinese logic and Chinese sciences in the history of China. I conclude that Chinese logic is essentially analogical, and that the Chinese did not have theoretical sciences. I then connect these together and explain why the Chinese failed to develop theoretical sciences, even though they enjoyed an advanced civilization and great scientific and technological innovations. This is because a deductive system of logic is necessary for the development of theoretical sciences, and analogical logic cannot provide the deductive connections between a theory and empirical observations required by a theoretical science. This also offers a more satisfactory answer to the long-standing Needham Problem.

    • My observations aren’t nearly so scientifically grounded, just interpersonal observations. Of the informal fallacies that people commit in justifying a certain belief or behavior, I generally hear arguments that are quite similar to arguments that I hear in the U.S.

      For one example, the appeal to tradition fallacy is still very prevalent in the U.S., as well, especially among certain religious dogmatists. The traditions differ, but the error does not. There’s also plenty of appeal to dubious authority, tu quoque, straw man argumentation, post hoc generalization, and so on.

      Now, when it comes to more formal fallacies, I think you’re right because most people are prone to reasoning from their folk grammar, not from a formal logic. Since the way in which logical operations are imbedded in English and Chinese languages differ, their exact errors in reasoning would differ also.

      For instance, inclusive and exclusive disjunction in English is more confusable than it is in Mandarin because there are two distinct terms to separate them (‘還是’ for exclusive and ‘或者’ for inclusive). English just has ‘or.’

      English has quicker phrases for logically necessary, chronologically prior statements (e.g. “only if”), but has a more complex one one for logically necessary, chronologically posterior statements (e.g. “but not until”). Mandarin has ‘才,’ which more like “then, and only then” for English.

      English has to explicitly state “and” more often than Mandarin does.

      Different horns of DeMorgan’s laws are easier to phrase in the two languages. (e.g. “John neither smokes nor drinks,” vs. “約翰不吸煙,也不喝酒。”)

      But this is just an argument which is analogous to one which claims that people who do math in decimal commit different computation errors than people who do math in octal commit, and I didn’t really have this in mind (though I should have).

  4. I would like to return to the original statement of Steve that Chinese people seems to be “too much illogical”. Too much illogical for what, I would like to ask. For western technological progress? But is this “progress” not too often too much ahead of itself? I mean we are also swayed by rhetoric (think for example of advertisements), emotions (thank god) and the rest. Western philosophy seems itself not in the clear about the values of technological progress. They might be only positions of power.

  5. It seems to me that the main question at the head of the thread might be usefully divided into two: (A) are Chinese people less logical than some other people? And (B) what features of Chinese culture/tradition look like they might make a difference to how logical people are? I urge a focus on (B).

    I wouldn’t look too narrowly at logic; I’d rather look at procedures constitutive of good thinking. I’m inclined to think a very large chunk of the procedures that amount to good thinking are matters of intuitive moves, in large part on quasi-aesthetic grounds (e.g. elegance of ideas, and a sense of what harmonizes with the rest of you know in the area). Directly, logic only helps you avoid contradiction; and nobody has formalized induction or the other aspects of good synthetic thinking and inquiring. (I think it is more accurate define a good reason to believe X as a consideration that would lead one to believe X by way of good thinking; not as a consideration that would support X by way of logic.) I think a certain sophistication in logic, along with the kind of clarity that makes logic possible, are necessary conditions of good thinking in general, and especially of collaboration in inquiry.

    Rhetoric isn’t a kind of logic – Aristotle and his posterity theorized about them quite separately – and I wouldn’t classify effectively persuasive rhetoric as a kind of good thinking.

    Megzi 1A7 is at least a text about rhetoric. I am not so sure it is a text about moral thinking. When Mengzi aims to persuade the king that the king is capable of caring for the people, he argues as follows:

    1. You cared for your ox.
    2. Caring for people is vastly easier than caring for oxen.
    3. You can care for the people. (1,2)

    No doubt caring for a person is easier than caring for an ox, other things equal. Here are some other things that are true other-things-equal: (a) caring that’s in your immediate concrete interest is easier than caring that goes against your immediate concrete interest, (b) caring for those you don’t see is harder than caring for those you do see, (c) caring for many is harder than caring for one, (d) sustained caring is harder than momentary caring. The text clearly signals to us that Mengzi was well aware of points (a) and (b); and if he wasn’t also well aware of points (c) and (d) in this connection at the time, then I’m not sure why we should care about anything he ever said. So I seriously wonder whether we should read 1A7 as a guide to Mengzi’s view on morality, or instead as a guide to Mencius’ devices for changing a king by talking.

    Here’s a scene: one person has the power, the other has the knowledge. The counselor knows what the king should do. The counselor has a limited amount of the king’s attention and respect, and must use it to get the king to do what he should do. That is perhaps the primal scene of traditional Chinese or at least Confucian rhetoric?

    Here is another kind of primal scene: two people, with different ideas and experiences, perhaps with a fair amount of time, are trying to figure out what they should do together (or trying to figure out what is true), by discussing it.

    Arguments have a place in both scenes.

    In the second scene, antecedent knowledge, ignorance, and power are distributed equally between the two parties. They aim to discover something together. They might or might not use an adversary process.

    Where do we find something like this second scene in the Chinese philosophical, political, and/or literary traditions?

  6. I haven’t been able to access Steve’s review on line; Taylor&Francis say (on more than one day) that the site is blocked because it has received more than 100 hits in 5 minutes. Are others having this problem?

  7. It’s wrong to lump the Indian subcontinent in with the “East”, in this manner. The Indian subcontinent had a rich tradition of logic (and consequently, mathematics) all on it’s own.

    The subject of differences between Indian & Western [i.e. Greek] forms of logic is a very interesting one in it’s own right.

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