Comments on Hansen, A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought, Chapter 2

Summary and Comments on Hansen, “The Context of Chinese Philosophy,” Chapter 2 of A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought


11 June 2014

 I was invited to attend and present at a conference on Daoism and paradox at CUNY in May.  Each presenter was asked to supply in advance some readings to focus the discussion.  Chad Hansen was another presenter, and he asked us to read in advance Chapter 2 of his A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought.  Consequently, I dutifully re-read the chapter (I first read it when I reviewed the book) and wrote up extensive notes for discussion.  However, Chad chose to present on a topic different from the one he asked us to read about, so my notes weren’t very useful.  Nonetheless, I spent a lot of time carefully re-reading and re-thinking Chad’s chapter, so I am posting these comments so they won’t completely go to waste.


On the one hand, Chad presents himself as rejecting “the standard interpretive theory,” and “widely held assumptions.”  However, many of the things that he suggests are in fact commonplaces of comparative philosophy:

  • Chinese thinkers of the pre-Qin period did not hold views of meaning or philosophies of mind that are similar in any substantive way to those of Plato, Descartes, Hume, or Frege.
  • Chinese thinkers of this period had a primarily practical orientation, with a strong interest in ethics and political philosophy, and less interest in purely theoretical issues.
  • Most Chinese thinkers of this period were not focused on giving definitions of terms (although there are important exceptions).
  • Most Chinese thinkers of this period thought of humans as social animals, and found implausible radical individualism (although one could argue that Yang Zhu was an exception).

The preceding claims I take to be uncontroversial, and to have been uncontroversial long before Chad started graduate school. Chad does provide some new arguments for these conclusions, but they seem to me to be convoluted and unconvincing:

  • Chad wishes to claim that, because of the presence of ideograms and pictograms among Chinese characters, speakers of Chinese during the pre-Qin period had an “implicit” view of meaning that would have made “the familiar Indo-European view of language and mind” seem implausible.  This claim is hard to evaluate because it (1) depends upon dubious factual claims about the structure of Chinese characters, (2) asserts counter-factual claim about what would have happened under certain historical conditions (i.e., if someone had advanced a particular theory of meaning), and (3) takes as one of its premises an appeal to “the implicit Chinese view” (p. 38) of characters that was allegedly widely held during the pre-Qin period.  How can we determine what the “implicit” (but never explicitly stated) Chinese view of characters was during this period?  The earliest explicit view we get (that of Xu Shen during the Han) does not support Chad’s hypothesis.
  • Chad wants to claim that nouns in this period were mass-nouns, in the sense that they referred to “stuffs” or “wholes,” whose parts did not come pre-individuated. Chad insists that this is a semantic claim, not a syntactic claim, but it is worth noting that in his own characterization of the view in this chapter he stresses syntactic features.  The syntactic features of mass nouns that Chad himself cites do not support the hypothesis that nouns in pre-Qin China were mass nouns.  Insofar as we focus on the semantic features of mass nouns, it is not at all clear what evidence there is supposed to be for Chad’s view.

Detailed Comments

p. 3:  “…I am challenging widely held assumptions within sinology about classical Chinese and its relation to Chinese philosophy.  The ruling theory, as I outlined in the preface, assumes that Chinese thinkers all implicitly adopted the familiar Indo-European view of language and mind.”

  • I wish Chad had named some Sinologists or comparative philosophers currently active in the field who hold the “widely held assumptions” or “ruling theory.”  For example, I do not think I or anyone I personally take seriously as a scholar assumes that Chinese philosophers have a semantic theory like, say, Hume or Frege.  A.C. Graham himself certainly thought no such thing.
  • I wonder whether there is anything that we might describe as “the familiar Indo-European view of language and mind” (emphasis mine).  The view that Chad describes in these terms seems to be very characteristic of early modern empiricists like Hume, but is not characteristic of many other Western philosophers.  Neither Frege nor Plato, for example, would argue that meanings are images or pictures (either in the mind or anywhere else).

p. 37:  “The proper attack, again, on this bias is the premise that phonemic writing is more highly developed writing.  Leaving that in place will demean Chinese writing even if we manage to ‘correct’ the quaint view of Chinese as totally pictographic to a more accurate view that it is 25 percent phonetic.”

  • I am puzzled what the “twenty-five percent phonetic” figure refers to.  I have read estimates that, among deciphered oracle bone inscriptions, 25% of the characters are what would traditionally be called semantic-phonetic compounds.  However, this is a misleading statement for two reasons.
  • First, the remaining characters include a high percentage of simple phonetic loans.
  • Second, it is dangerous to jump to conclusions about the later Chinese language and its influence on Chinese philosophy based on statistics from a small language sample used in a very specific ritual context from much earlier in the history of the language.  For example, the percentage of “non-phonetic” characters steadily decreases over time, including the philosophically crucial 5th-3rd centuries BCE.

p. 37:  “The deeper problem is that sinologists, shying away from acknowledging any significance of Chinese writing, miss the ways it could be philosophically interesting.”

  • Of course, no serious Sinologist is guilty of “shying away from acknowledging any significance of Chinese writing.”

p. 38:  “Chinese writing, thus, plays the inter-language role of Plato’s realm of meanings and its philosophical descendent, private Mentalese ideas. … Chinese graphs give a model that explains how to relate the sounds of different spoken languages.”

  • I take it that this is one of the primary theses of this chapter.  Later on the same page, Chad refers to this view (I think) as “the implicit Chinese view” and on the next page as “the popular Chinese ideology.”  The following is what I think Chad is claiming:  Western philosophers were motivated to develop their theories of meaning by the search for what is in common between words in different spoken languages.  However, Chinese philosophers did not develop similar theories because they assumed that the same function was performed by characters, which were pronounced differently in different dialects.  (Chad seemed to confirm this interpretation in discussion at the conference on paradox in Daoism at CUNY in May 2014.)  If this is the argument, it raises several problems.
  • It is debatable how much dialect variation there was among those who were literate in the Eastern Zhou dynasty.
  • Chad presents no evidence that his specific “ideology” was consciously held by any Chinese philosophers.  (This is perhaps why he uses the word “implicit.”)  But then Chad’s argument seems to be a counterfactual historical claim.  It amounts to the claim that if Chinese philosophers had become interested in the issue of how words in different languages are related, they would have said that it was through the use of common characters.  This claim seems hard to evaluate.
  • I am not sure that Chad’s account of how Western philosophy of language developed is accurate.  Certainly, some philosophers of language have specifically discussed translation as a paradigm case for discussing meaning.  (Both Quine and Frege refer to translation in connection with meaning, although with very different conclusions.)  But I do not think it is historically accurate that what motivated Plato or Hume was an interest in translation.

p. 40:  “Chinese thinkers don’t get caught up in the familiar problems of meaning.  They do not start with a conception of philosophy as a search for definitions.”

  • We need to be careful here.  It is certainly (and uncontroversially) true that most pre-Qin Chinese philosophers (with the notable exceptions of the later Mohists and, in some passages, Xunzi) do not seem particularly concerned with definitions.
  • However, Chad’s explanation for why Chinese philosophers were not obsessed with definitions seems to me to be a non sequitur.  One could conceive of a definition as a way of characterizing a mental or metaphysical idea.  However, one could think that definitions were important without having any particular semantics.  Indeed, my guess is that the development in Platonism went in the other direction.  Socrates was obsessed with defining terms, but without any particular metaphysics or semantics underlying it.  Plato developed a metaphysics to justify and explain what Socrates was doing.

p. 41:  “Westerners, thus, learn a folk theory of language that links the phenomenon of tone to another aspect of our philosophy of mind.  It reinforces the folk theory’s split between intellect and emotion, idea and feeling, belief and desire, reason and passion.”

  • The second sentence seems to me to be too quick of a generalization.  The dichotomies “between intellect and emotion, idea and feeling, belief and desire, reason and passion” have not been constant throughout Western philosophy.  For Plato, to know the Good is to love it.  For Aristotle, a virtuous person has both correct judgment but also appropriate feeling. Thus, neither for Plato for Aristotle is there a “split” between intellect and emotion.
  • In the first sentence from the quotation above, Chad seems to me to be trading on different senses of the word “tone.”  Modern Chinese is a tonal language, where the tone of the syllable is part of its pronunciation.  We can call this syllabic tone.  English is not tonal in this sense.  However, in both Chinese and English, “tone” in a broader sense is certainly one aspect of the language. Let’s call this rhetorical tone. Chinese speakers can certainly express anger, sarcasm, etc. in their tone of voice, without interfering with the syllabic tones.
  • Even if tone in the rhetorical sense were not a feature of spoken Chinese, tone can also be a feature of writing.  For example, Zhuangzi’s tone is often playful; Mengzi’s tone is serious and somber.  Likewise, even without hearing his voice, Chad’s bitter and sarcastic tone is perfectly evident when he criticizes Graham, saying, “Aside from the questionable criteria of truth (that is, whatever Harbsmeier is eventually willing to commit himself to in print)…” (p. 48, footnote), or “…he could not get over that the appendix itself did not contain the argument in the footnote.  He has never forgiven me and has passed the robe of transmission to Harbsmeier and Cikoski” (p. 379n8).

p. 45:  “The ancient Chinese concept of ciphrase ranges across any linguistic strings that we intentionally structure.”

  • This seems to me largely accurate.  However, as Chad observes in both the footnotes and the endnotes, Graham argues that the later Mohists recognized that there was a difference between sentences, per se, and sub-sentential units.  Chad asserts, both in this chapter and in the appendix to “Chinese Language, Chinese Philosophy, and ‘Truth,’” that he does not find Graham’s interpretation plausible.
  • Chad dismisses Graham’s arguments with nothing more than sarcasm, but let’s assume Chad is right and no one in ancient China identified sentences, per se, as distinct grammatical entities from words and sub-sentential phrases.  What follows from this?  We would not expect Chinese philosophers to make any claims that depended upon a conscious recognition of sentences as distinct from other grammatical units.  However, Chinese philosophers could still use (what we regard as) sentences to make claims and advance arguments.  They could still disagree about whether (what we regard as sentences) are true or false.  In addition, we could legitimately use sentences ourselves to accurately attribute views to Chinese thinkers.  So I think that what the quoted passage rules out is fairly narrow, and it does not adversely affect most of the work that has been done on Chinese and comparative philosophy.

p. 48, footnote:  “My mass-noun hypothesis has been widely misinterpreted….  It was not a syntactic claim that Chinese nouns have mass noun grammar. … I hypothesized that the semantics of Chinese nouns may be like those of mass nouns….  [It is] the hypothesis that [Classical Chinese speakers’] implicit ontology was a mereology.”

  • I think Chad opens himself up to misunderstanding because, even in this chapter, he focuses on syntactic criteria for identifying something as a mass noun.  He says of count nouns (p. 47):
  1. “They typically have a plural form….”
  2. “…can be modified directly by numbers …”
  3. “…[can be modified by] phrases like many and few
  4. “…[have] a principle of individuality built in.  To understand the noun is to know how to count the objects it refers to.”
  5. “The principle of identity for a count noun allows that it can gain or lose matter and still remain the very same individual.” (all italics as in original)
  • In contrast, for mass nouns,
  1. Grammatically they normally resist pluralization…” (emphasis mine here, all other italics by Chad)
  2. … and [they normally resist] direct numbering…..”
  3. “We modify them using much and little instead of many and few….”
  4. “…do not have an inherent principle of individuation.  We know what counts as the same X but not what counts as an individual X.
  5. “Its principle of identity…is much more strict.  If some parts of it have changed, it is no longer the very same water.”  (all the above from p. 47)
  • So Chad has given us four syntactic criteria for distinguishing mass nouns from count nouns, and two semantic criteria.  How do nouns in Classical Chinese fair according to these criteria?
    1. No nouns in Classical Chinese have plural forms.  However, there are also count nouns in English that lack a plural form:  one deer, two deer; one sheep, two sheep; one fish, two fish.  So this feature does not show us very much.
    2. Chad writes, “…numbers could modify some nouns directly” (p. 49, emphasis in original).  This use of the word “some” is misleading.  Most nouns in Classical Chinese can be directly numbered:  二子, two sons,  百步, one hundred steps, 二老者, two old men, 一牛 one ox, do not require a measure word or counter.  Only a handful of Chinese nouns require a counter after the number:  馬三匹 three head of horses (lit., horses, three head), 車五百  five hundred chariots (lit., chariots, three hundred).  So by this criterion most nouns in Classical Chinese are count nouns.
    3. Chad writes, “Chinese lacks the many/much few/little distinction.” (p. 48)  This too is misleading.  On the one hand, 多 and 少 are sometimes used in places where we would expect “much” and “little” in English, and are sometimes used in places where we would expect “many” and “few.”  However, as Chad concedes in the footnote on pp. 48-49, we do find 幾 consistently used only with countable nouns to mean several/how many?  幾千several thousand, 幾日 how many days?  But even if we focus on the apparent ambiguity, for us English speakers, of 多 and 少, I don’t think this carries any weight in deciding whether Chinese nouns are count or mass nouns, because we need to already know whether we are dealing with a count or a mass noun to know how to translate those terms.
  • On the issue of whether Classical Chinese nouns are best understood as count or mass nouns, the preceding points seem to me inconclusive, at best.  However, since Chad emphasizes that his claim is actually “semantic,” rather than syntactic, we should probably focus on his fourth and fifth criteria:

4. To review, Chad says of mass nouns that they “…do not have an inherent principle of individuation.  We know what counts as the same X but not what counts as an individual X.” Now, do users of Classical Chinese seem at a loss when it comes to identifying an individual “son,” “step,” “old person” or “ox”?  I do not see any evidence that they do.  In texts that discuss sons, steps, old people, or oxen, speakers seem perfectly clear about how to individuate them.

5.   Chad claims that in the case of mass nouns, there are “strict” criteria for identity.  For example, he states, in the case of water, “[i]f some parts of it have changed, it is no longer the very same water.”

  • Do speakers of Classical Chinese think that sons, old people or oxen are different if they gain or lose weight?  Presumably Chad does not want to claim that.  After all, he states later in the chapter, “No philosophical problem arises from the mere fact that change takes place in a part-whole ontology.  Stuff changes.  But that observation, by itself, raises no philosophical difficulty” (p. 50).  Fine, but then in what sense are the identity conditions for mass-entities “strict”?
  • I’m not sure that Chad’s claim is true even of the referents of mass nouns in English.  Consider my friend eyeing my plate and saying, “Where did you get that pork?” I reply, “There’s pork up at the buffet.  Why don’t you go have a piece of it too?”  Should I have responded, “I got the pork from the buffet, but it is gone now,” because I ate a piece, so it is no longer “the same pork”?  If this is a mistaken or uncharitable reading of Chad’s fifth criterion, what is the accurate reading?

p. 50:  “We can discuss individuals of human-stuff, families of human-stuff, and cities or states of human-stuff.  Objecthood is derivative in this conceptual scheme.”

  • It has long been a commonplace of comparative philosophy that Chinese philosophers tend to find unappealing an atomistic conception of the self (like we find in, say, Hobbes).  There is nothing new or uncontroversial about that.
  • The question is whether Chad’s mass-noun hypothesis explains anything or adds anything new.  I’m not sure that it does, but part of the problem is that I remain sincerely unsure what Chad is asking us to imagine. For example, am I to imagine that speakers of Classical Chinese implicitly thought of humans the way I think of water, as a mass that lacks any natural divisions for individuation?  This seems obviously false, so out of charity I do not want to attribute it to Chad.  But if Chad is not saying anything as quixotic as that, is he doing anything other than just restating the commonplace view in different terms?
  • Incidentally, it is worth nothing that an atomistic view of the self is hardly universal in the West.  For example, Aristotle famously says that humans are social animals, and that to live alone one must be either an animal or a god.  So I think we need to be careful in drawing broad-brush distinction between China and the West without sufficient nuance.

p. 50:  “The standard interpretive theory frequently attributes a Heraclitus-like problem of change to Chinese philosophers (especially Daoists).  I object.  No philosophical problem arises from the mere fact that change takes place in a part-whole ontology. …The perennial Western problem lies in explaining how the object can remain the very same object while its constituent stuff flows in and out.”

  • Here again I would like greater clarity on who holds “the standard interpretive theory,” and whom Chad is objecting to. I personally do not hold that Daoists (or anyone else in ancient China) were fascinated with the problem of how substantial identity persists in the face of change, and I do not think anyone whom I take seriously as a scholar does this, but it is hard to know for sure since Chad is not specific.
  • Of course, Chinese philosophers certainly were very interested in change in some senses.  (This is the tradition that gave us the Classic of Changes, or I Ching, after all.)  The fact that we discuss what Daoists, Confucians, or other philosophers have to say about how things change does not entail that we are foisting upon them the views of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

p. 53:  “Their dominant concerns, from the beginning, were the issues of proper social organization and motivation.”

  • Another well-established commonplace of comparative philosophy is that Chinese philosophers focus on ethical and political issues, rather than issues of purely theoretical interest.  (Chad’s teacher, Donald Munro, made this point forcefully in his The Concept of Man in Early China.)  So, again, the question is what is Chad adding to this truism?  I don’t see anything new in the conclusion, just a convoluted argument to get there.

p. 54: “Despite these differences in context [between Western and Chinese philosophy], their disputes still focused on language, its relation to the heart-mind, and realism versus relativism in ethical guidance.  They gradually developed carefully elaborated philosophical theories of language and its social role.”

  • As A.C. Graham and others showed us long ago, many ancient Chinese philosophers were interested in issues in the philosophy of language.  This leaves open many questions, though, and I think two are especially worth asking of Chad’s work:  (1) How pervasive was the interest in language?  (2) To what extent was there a common vocabulary and a shared underlying theory for conducting debates on this topic?
  • (1) My own view would be that the answer to the first question is that the philosophy of language, in a broad sense of that term, pops up in many different places in ancient Chinese philosophy, but usually on the periphery of what were the more central issues in ethics.
  • (2) Regarding the second question, I think the discussions lacked a common technical vocabulary, and we must be very careful about jumping to the conclusion that two philosophers were discussing the same issue.  For example, if Confucius in fact discussed “Correcting Names,” as Analects 13:3 suggests, there is no reason to assume he was discussing anything that was relevant to Gongsun Long’s “On the White Horse,” simply because the word “name” appears in both texts.

In short, Chad presents himself as breaking significant new ground.  However, many of the claims he forcefully asserts are well-established truisms of comparative philosophy.  What is genuinely original in this chapter are the arguments for these conclusions, which often appeal to dubious premises, and in some cases are simple non-sequiturs.

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"The Doc" is a professor at Vassar College (USA). However, the views expressed in his blog and comments are not necessarily those of Vassar, its administration, or other employees, none of whom bears any responsibility for his opinions.
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