Shi-fei (this-not)

Shi-fei fills the space in Chinese philosophy occupied by the Western concept of 'judgment'. The differences illustrate some deep contrasts between the two traditions. The grammatical roles shi and fei have evolved drastically in modern Chinese. A typical modern dictionary entry for shi might be "Yes, Right, The verb 'to be’." (We use 'to be' in far more grammatical contexts than modern Mandarin speakers use shi.) Fei would be "Wrong, bad, non- or without" in the dictionary. In modern Chinese it functions more as "non" than as "is not." The modern compound shi-fei (gossip) is far removed from its classical meaning.

Classical grammar never used shi (or any other verb) as a link between subject and predicate. Subjects were optional and a sentence might consist merely of a noun predicate followed by ye (an assertion marker) or a verbal predicate. Minimal strings would be "Horse ye" and "Runs." Fei negated only the noun predicates. Bu would normally negate verbal predicates (including adjectives). In classical use, shi was a simply a demonstrative pronoun or modifier. It was very much like 'this' except that, in verbal sentences, its could only occur bevore the main verb. It could act as the subject, the exposed topic or the object of an "instrumental" pre-verbal preposition (usually yi "with").

We can summarize this grammar of Classical Chinese in the following three rules. (S=sentence, T=term, P=predicate)

S è (T) + (T) + P

P è {(fei) + T + ye

                     (Bu) + P' + (speech act marker) }

P' è (yi + (T)) + Pn + T + (yu+ T).

The shi may occur in any of the optional T positions before the main verb or as the predicate nominative. It was never the direct or indirect object of a verb and could not occur after bu (is not). Therefore, strictly speaking, shi did not mean "right." Pragmatically, of course, they could say "(it is) this" in all situations in which we would say "this one is right."

One interpretive controversy swirls around shi because Chinese translators disagree about the best way to translate the Indo-European concept of 'being'. Some favored the you-wu (existence-nonexistence) pair and some the shi-fei pair. The envisioned translation project (translating Aristotle) makes this dispute too specialized for our interest. Angus Graham, however, revisited the argument from the opposite perspective asking "what does the option of two translations tell us about the differences in Chinese conceptual structure?" He argued that they actually divided Aristotle’s concept of being in two. Aristotle famously distinguished between what we now call the "existential" and "predicative" uses of "to be." (Note, for example, the difference between saying "God is" and "God is good.") Roughly, Graham suggested, shi-fei corresponds to the predicative concept and you-wu to the existential. (See You-Wu for a further discussion of Graham's argument.)

Graham noted, however, that shi was never a copula in classical Chinese, but an indexical pronoun (‘this’) and that shi-fei did not fit together grammatically the way you-wu did. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the key philosophical dispute in Ancient China is about "shi" and "fei." However, it was more an ethical dispute than a metaphysical one. Given its centrality to Classical thought, this analysis suggests Chinese thinkers structured philosophical issues in a radically different way. Translators typically translate shi-fei disputes as familiar sounding disputes about what judgments are right or wrong. However, there are important differences. We can explain them best by pausing to analyze how a dispute about dao (which way to follow) involves disputes about shi-fei.

The most concrete sense of dao is ‘path.’ We follow a path to get somewhere. Sometimes two paths lead to the same place, sometimes to different places. Disputes about which path to follow easily blur this distinction. We may think of ethics as a dispute about which path to follow. When we disagree about the end, we would say we had different moral theories. A dispute about which dao to follow is like a choice at a crossroads. I say shi (this) and you say fei (not).

In Confucius’ Analects, the language of shi-fei was comparatively rare. (This may explain Fingarette’s sense that Confucius envisioned a "way without a crossroads.") The shi-fei approach to analyzing philosophical issues appears to have originated with Mozi. Mencius and Xunzi version of Confucianism incorporated it and tradition read original Confucian concerns through their later analysis.

The sense of dao in which we disagree on some path while agreeing on a goal informs many of Confucius' sayings. It also contributes a "discourse" sense of dao. The Confucian dao was initially a corpus of classical texts (the syllabus in Confucius' "school") and the implicit moral conception was a quasi-religious traditionalism. The path and goal were set by "Sage kings" and tian (heaven/nature). The path came to us in the form of texts, particularly texts on li (ritual). In early Confucian contexts, dispute was mainly interpretive. Does the text say we should do this or not (shi-fei)?

The shi can refer to an object or an action—the right object to use (the right cap to wear) or the right behavior (a proper bow). Within Confucianism, this kind of dispute motivated the doctrine of "rectifying names." The correct answer is correct interpretive performance of the ceremonies—this is the behavior prescribed in this situation. Modeling was the typical way to give an answer to such questions.

Mohism implicitly broadens the analysis to deal with questions of normative theory--what counts as yi (moral), ren (humane) or de (virtue). Mozi retains and emphasizes the use of shi for picking out particular actions. This feature shapes his utilitarianism. Formally, he proposes we should govern our use of shi and fei by the benefit-harm distinction. His doctrine of agreement with the superior, however, emphasizes the utility to society of merely having agreement in shi and fei. Supposedly, Mozi would prefer that the agreement came from everyone's employing the benefit-harm standard.

His utilitarianism thus represents a blend of overt normative theory and a theory of interpretation (reference). The right way to use of moral terms like yi (moral) and de (virtue) is to use them of things that maximize benefit. However, this obviously depends on how the guiding discourse goes. So benefit can be a standard for changing the discourse as well as our application of it. Some of Mozi's arguments illustrate how the two sides can intereact. We ought to shi saying ‘exists’ of ‘spirits’ and fei saying it of ‘fate’. Thus, which string society perpetuates in its guiding discourse (dao) is governed by the shi-fei assignment that maximizes benefit.

This duality of shi-fei in classical Chinese explains why thinkers intimately link ethical issues to the question of distinction making. Essentially getting shi-fei right is making distinctions in the right place–carving the world at its normative joints. Technically, fei is the key to making distinctions and, in Daoism, it becomes a focus of its theory of language. We count as knowing a word in the language when we know that something does not count as "the thing in question" (fei). To know the word is more than simply knowing what counts as 'it' (shi).

Translators have no easy way to capture this analysis in English and mostly bury it behind idiomatic English. Sometimes they render shi as "this" (noun) sometimes as "right" (adjective) or "approve" (verb). Some translators, following Graham, translate fei as "not this" in more analytical contexts, but most stick with "wrong" (adjective) or "disapprove" (verb).

The Later Mohists built a more realistic semantic theory around shi-fei. A society hits on a conventional pattern of selecting things with names. Given that convention, our application of shi-fei with that word is thereafter guided by the world, i.e., by the actual distribution of similarity and difference in the structure of things. They championed the use of fa (See FA) as a measurement-like standards for the application of terms. Clear fa give us even more objective, world-guided and determinate answers to questions of shi-fei. The concept of fa was taken over (in somewhat distorted form) by the so-called "Legalists" in Ancient China.

Mencius, seeking to evade the Mohist utilitarian conclusions, focused on the immediate, action-guiding function of shi-fei. Knowing shi-fei was knowing specifically what to do here and now. He relied on an optimistic theory of moral psychology to replace fa. Humans have an action-guiding intuition that fits the moral structure of reality. It required proper nurturing, but fully matured, it directly guided concrete shi and fei action choices.

Sage-like action, thus, requires no intermediate discourse Dao. Implicitly, Confucius' intuition guiding us to interpret the ritual (rectifying names) presupposed that we could directly choose the right thing to do—shi. If so, then we need no guidance from texts.

Mencius had a doctrine of "four fonts." The first was a kind of natural compassion. It leads to the elusive moral attitude Confucius called ren (benevolence). The fourth was a natural inclination to shi-fei that leads to zhi (wisdom). Presumably, 'wisdom' here denotes the ability to do the right thing. Mencius does not suggest that theoretical wisdom is innate.

The other major Classical figure who discussed shi-fei was Zhuangzi. His analysis exploited the grammatical and the interpretive complexity we have developed. (The interpretation of Zhuangzi motivated much of Graham’s analysis.) In the first step, Zhuangzi contrasts shi with it's indexical opposite bi (other) to emphasize their indexical character. Then he concludes that all shi-fei assignments (all judgment) reflect the position of the utterer rather than the nature of reality.

Judgments, in this tradition, were not propositions but indexical assignment of objects to social categories. The categories determine their role in action-guiding discourse. So Zhuangzi's position suggested semantic pluralism. There are many ways to assign terms from guiding discourse to objects in the world. Which assignment we use depends on our perspectives. A perspecive is the position we arrive at following a history of prior commitments and training.

A commitment, as the Later Mohists said, was a prior decision to use a term of some object. The process of infant and childhood language learning, inculcation of guiding attitudes, categories and so forth shape our perspectives. Each of us can elaborate our pattern of assigning terms from a guiding discourse guide application to new cases. In doing so, we still rely on prior decisions and guidance. Our justifications of shi-fei judgments rely on other shi-fei judgments and those on some our parents made and those on . . . .

Zhuangzi called the views that "accumulate" as we develop, "cheng" (complete). He used the term with such ironic overtones that translators frequently render the word in Zhuangzi's writings as "prejudice" or "bias." Past traditions, experiences, conclusions are constantly changing our "achieved angle of view" yet it always seems to us "complete." Those who disagree seem to have missed something.

Zhuangzi's paradigm example is the dispute of the Confucians and Mohists. Each has a different discourse dao. Accordingly, for key terms of moral discourse, they disagree on "what counts as "this" and "not-this" (shi-ing themselves and fei-ing their opponents). They disagreed about the extension or scope of terms like yi (moral), de (virtue) and ren (humane).

Zhuangzi also argued against Mencius’ allegedly perspective-free conception of intuitive shi-fei judgment. Any assignment of shi-fei, Zhuangzi argued, presupposes some discourse content and acquired background perspective. We cannot get a shi-fei out of the heart-mind unless it has been instilled there by cheng. Mencius had to reach outside the intuitions of the heart-mind to justify relying on the heart-mind. He relied on something other than the heart-mind to conclude that some heart-minds make sages and others make fools.

We may imagine undoing our learning to arrive at a state prior to all shi-fei. From there, any pattern of assignment would be possible. However, no pattern would be shi. The cosmos has no "point of view." Thus, the appeal to nature or metaphysics cannot solve our disputes about what dao to follow. From this "axis" of dao," we would have nothing to say.


Bao, Zhiming. 4/1/90 "Language and World View in Ancient China," Philosophy East and West Vol XL, No. 2 (Empty) pp. 195-210.

Fingarette, Herbert. 1972 Confucius The Secular as Sacred (Empty) .

Graham, Angus. 1969 "Zhuang-tzu's Essay on Seeing Things as Equal,," History of Religions 9 (Empty) pp. 137-159.

Graham, Angus. 1978 Later Mohist Logic, Ethics and Science (Hong Kong and London: Chinese University Press) .

Graham, Angus. 1989 Disputers of the Dao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China (La Salle, IL: Open Court) .

Hansen, Chad. 1989 "Mozi: Language Utilitarianism: The Structure of Ethics in Classical China," The Journal of Chinese Philosophy 16 (Empty) pp. 355-380.

Hansen, Chad. 1992 A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought (New York: Oxford University Press) pp. xv-448.

Hansen, Chad. 1993 "Term Belief in Action," in Lenk et al (ed.), Epistemological Issues in Chinese Philosophy (Buffalo: SUNY Series in Chinese Philosophy and Cu) pp. 45-68.

Hansen, Chad. 6/1/94 "Meaning Change and Fastandards," Philosophy East and West Vol. 43, No. 3 pp. 435-488.




Complete, success, bias



Know, knowledge, wisdom



Standard, law, model, measurement standard



Not, wrong, dissent, disagree



Use, with, instrumental proposition



Morality, rightness



Ritual, convention, propriety



That, other



Not, verbal negation



Humane, benevolent, humanity



This, right, assent, agree



Nature, heaven, sky



Way, path, course, guiding discourse



Virtue, virtuosity, power



Force marker (assertion)



In, at, by, locative proposition


¦³ µL

Being/non-being, have-lack, existence-nonexistence