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Mohist philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G008-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

Article Summary

Mohist philosophy describes the broad-ranging philosophical tradition initiated by Mo Ti or Mozi (Master Mo) in the fifth century bc. Mozi was probably of quite humble origins, perhaps a member of the craft or artisan class. Early in life, he may have studied with followers of Confucius. However, he went on to become the first serious critic of Confucianism.

Mozi’s philosophy was part of an organized utopian movement whose members engaged in direct social action. He was a charismatic leader who inspired his followers to dedicate themselves to his unique view of social justice. This required them to lead austere and demanding lives, as he called upon them to participate in such activities as the military defence of states unjustly attacked.

Mozi is arguably the first true philosopher of China. He was the first to develop systematic analyses and criticisms of his opponents and present carefully argued positions of his own. This led him and his later followers to develop an interest in and study of the forms and methods of philosophical argumentation, which contributed significantly to the development of early Chinese philosophy.

Mozi saw ideological differences and the factionalism they spawned as the primary source of human suffering, and he hotly criticized the familially-based ethical and political system of Confucius for its inherent partiality. In its place he advocated three basic goods: the wealth, order and the population of the state. Against the Confucians, he argued for jian’ai (impartial care). Jian’ai is often translated as ‘universal love’, but this is misleading. Mozi saw the central ethical problem as an excess of partiality, not a lack of compassion; he was interested not in cultivating emotions or attitudes, but in shaping behaviour. He showed remarkably little interest in moral psychology and embraced an extremely thin picture of human nature, which led him away from the widely observed Chinese concern with self-cultivation. His general lack of appreciation for psychological goods and the need to control desires and shape dispositions and attitudes also led him to reject the characteristic Confucian concern with culture and ritual.

Mozi believed human beings possess an extremely plastic and malleable nature, and he advocated a strong form of voluntarism. For several different reasons, he believed that people could be induced to take up almost any form of behaviour. First, he shared a common early Chinese belief in a psychological tendency to respond in kind to the treatment one receives. He further believed that, in order to win the favour of their rulers, many people are inclined to act as their rulers desire. Those who do not respond to either of these influences can be motivated and controlled by a system of strict rewards and punishments, enforced by the state and guaranteed by the support of Heaven, ghosts and spirits. Most important of all, Mozi believed that rational arguments provide extremely strong if not compelling motivation to act: presented with a superior argument, thinking people act accordingly.

The social and political movements of the later Mohists lasted until the beginning of the Han Dynasty (206 bc). They continued Mozi’s early interests and developed sophisticated systems of logical analysis, mathematics, optics, physics, defensive warfare technology and strategy and a formal ethic based upon calculations of benefit and harm. All the philosophical concerns of the later Mohists can be found in the early strata of the Mozi, and seem to reflect the teachings of the tradition’s founder.

Citing this article:
Ivanhoe, Philip J.. Mohist philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G008-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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