Logic in China


Technically, classical China had semantic theory but no logic. Western historians, confusing logic and theory of language, used the term ‘logicians’ to describe those philosophers whom the Chinese called the ‘name school’. The best known of these were Hui Shi (380–305 bc) and Gongsun Lung (b. 380 bc?). This group now also includes the Later Mohists and the term ‘distinction school’ (translated as ‘dialecticians’) has become common.

The importance of the more detailed Mohist work came to light in modern times. The Confucian tradition had lost access to it. Rescuing that text rekindled a long-lost interest in Chinese theories of language. The restored Mohist texts give us a general theory of how words work. A term picks out part of reality. Some terms are more general than others; terms like ‘dobbin’ or ‘horse’ or ‘object’ might pick out the same thing. When we use a term to pick something out, we commit ourselves to using the name to pick out similar things and ‘stopping’ with the dissimilar. Thus, for each term we learn an ‘is this’ and an ‘is not’. ‘Is not’ generates an opposite for each name and marks the point of distinction or discrimination.

Chinese doctrine portrays disagreements as arising from different ways of making the distinctions that give rise to opposites. The word bian (distinction/dispute) thus came to stand for a philosophical dispute. The Mohists argued that, in a ‘distinction/dispute’, one party will always be right. For any descriptive term, the thing in question will either be an ‘is this’ or an ‘is not’.

Mohists were realistic about descriptions and the world. Real similarities and differences underlie our language. They rejected the claim that words distort reality; to regard all language as ‘perverse’, they noted, was ‘perverse’. The Mohists failed, however, to give a good account of what similarities and differences should count in making a distinction. Mohists also found that combining terms was semantically fickle. In the simplest case, the compound picked out the sum of what the individual terms did. Classical Chinese lacked pluralization so ‘cat–dog’ works like ‘cats and dogs’. Other compound terms (such as ‘white horse’) worked as they do in English. The confusion led Gongsun Long to argue, on Confucian grounds, that we could say ‘white horse is not horse’.

Confucius’ linguistics centred on his proposal to ‘rectify names’. Confucius used a code with fixed formulations, and therefore tended to treat moral problems as turning on which terms we use in stating them. The abortion dispute illustrates this well. Both sides agree to the rule ‘do not kill an innocent person’: the dispute becomes one of whether to use the term ‘person’ or ‘foetus’. In contrast, Mohists argued that we should not alter normal term use to get moral results. We simply accept that guiding compounds may not follow normal use. A thief is a person, but killing a thief (executing) is not killing a person (murdering).

These results bolstered Daoist scepticism about words. We never will fashion a ‘constant’ dao. According to Zhuangzi, even a realistic theory of language (like that of the Mohists) will not give constant guidance. He drew from Hui Shi’s approach to language, which emphasized relative terms such as ‘large’ and ‘small’. We may talk of a large horse (relative to other horses) or a large horsefly (relative to other flies), but ‘large’ itself has no constant standard of comparison. From the premise, ‘all such distinctions are relative’, Hui Shi fallaciously concluded that ‘reality has no distinctions in itself’. Zhuangzi rejected this conclusion and ridiculed Hui Shi’s monism. If we say ‘everything is one’, then our language attempts to ‘point to’ everything. If it succeeds, then in addition to the ‘one–everything’ there is the reference to it. That makes two. The whole consisting of everything and saying so then makes three. Referring to that whole makes four, and the fact that we have referred to it makes five, and so on.

Zhuangzi shifted Hui Shi’s focus slightly, and concentrated on ‘this’ and ‘that’. These do refer to things, but each use is different. Language, he argued, is not fixed on the world but on our relationships with it. Each existing language (different ways of making guiding distinctions) is equally natural. Human debate is as natural as the chirping of birds. We cannot appeal to nature to settle our disputes about ethics. The standards are not constant; they are historical, variable and diverse in different moral communities.

Distinctions are real, but we can never know if we have found the right ones. Zhuangzi accepts a real world in which language works. Thus, he celebrates the endless possible ways of distinguishing ‘this’ from ‘not-this’. Some alternatives will certainly work better (assuming our present values) than the one we have now. The problem is that any standard we could use to decide about that would itself be controversial.

The final word came from Xunzi and his student Han Feizi. The former, a Confucian, understood Zhuangzi’s arguments to show that the only standard of correct usage must be convention itself. Thus he renewed Confucian tradition and promoted it politically as the only viable and valid conventional system. He advocated government suppression of dissenting voices who ‘confuse language’ and ‘create new terms’. In the end, only the ruler may change language (and then only the ‘descriptive’ terms). The standards of social assent and dissent come from the Confucian ‘sage-kings’. We must adhere to these as the only acceptable ideals; the alternative is anarchy in moral discourse and, consequently, in society.

Han Feizi, seized on Xunzi’s attitude toward coercion while discarding the appeal to ancient tradition. Han Feizi had considerable influence on the draconian Qin emperor who ruthlessly carried out his injunction to stamp out philosophical disputes about ethics. This brought the rich tradition of creative philosophy to an abrupt end; religious thought and scholasticism dominated the rest of Chinese intellectual history.

Citing this article:
Hansen, Chad. 'Logic in China'. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy 1998: Accessed (May 27, 2015). https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/logic-in-china/v-1/
Copyright © 1998-2015 Routledge.