Philosophy of Language in Classical China

Confucius: Rectifying Names

Mo Tzu: language utilitarianism

Later Mohist Realism

The School of Names: Kung-sun Lung and Hui Shih

Chuang Tzu: Skeptical Relativism

Hsün Tzu: Confucian Conventionalism

The Aftermath: Death of Philosophy

Glossary (In Big 5 coding)

Reading List

Theory of language is a key part of Classical Chinese thought. It provided the crucial insights that informed the original, indigenous philosophy of China. It shaped their discussions of metaphysics, moral psychology, normative and applied ethics and political theory. Classical debates about language produced progressively more viable theories whose surprising distinctiveness reflects features of Chinese language.

This article will address only these Pre-Han theorists whose distinctively Chinese theories triggered the philosophical high point of classical philosophy. Crudeness in linguistic theory stands as one of clearest signs of the philosophical "Dark Age" that followed. The break in transmission of reflective analysis accompanied the substitution of superstitious and manipulative religious cosmology for philosophy. Buddhism introduced a Western theory which, stirred loosely into the crude remnant, produced the Medieval Chinese linguistic doctrines. A countervailing trend produced a scholastic Confucianism that dominated Chinese thinking until early modern times.

Buddhism imported its peculiar version of the familiar Indo-European theory of language and mind (sententials, concept theory, and private mind idealism). How well they understood this and how influential it was in China are both controversial. See various articles under Buddhism for more discussion. Buddhism, in turn, influenced the Neo-Confucian revival but it failed to develop an independent theory of language. Neo-Confucianism reflected some of Buddhism's anti-language posture, but with little sustained reflection either on language itself or on the problems that classical philosophers exposed in anti-language positions.

The original Chinese theories presuppose many interesting background assumptions about language. First, they seldom remarked on the use of written characters--probably regarding these as a normal way of writing. Their use did not incline writers to draw strong distinctions between writing and speaking. Key terms like ming (names) and yan (language:words) seem to function much as our English translations do, i.e., referring to abstract types of which both written or spoken items are tokens. Modern Chinese distinguishes between wen (literature) and hua (speech).

Despite the pictographic derivation of written Chinese, all classical thinkers tended to treat reference as a matter of historical-convention. Ideally, we conform to the practice of the hypothetical coiners of names (Sage kings). Paradoxically, no philosopher seems even to have formulated a representational picture of how language operates. A representational theory would seem natural given a pictographic view of writing. However, would dealing with written symbols, rather than idealized mental images tempt them less to propose a pictographic semantics?

Two things might suggest so: 1) anyone who learned to write would appreciate that it required conformity to conventional form; not any picture, however accurate, would do; 2) the conventional symbols do not resemble their objects in ways that allow direct interpretation without learning the conventions.

Chinese theory also differs from Western sentential "picture theory." They did not understand sentences as true when they "pictured" analogously structured metaphysical facts. Chinese linguistic thought focused on names not sentences. We can easily explain this different preoccupation. The vivid, graphic writing focuses attention on the character units. More importantly, characters did not take part-of-speech modification. Chinese writers did not notice the functional parts that point to sentential composition. Further, in their topic-comment structure, subjects were optional and comparatively rare in written texts. The familiar Western idea of a sentence "frame" that speakers "fill in" with functional units would not be as inviting for Chinese linguistic thinkers.

Those features explain adequately the focus on words rather than sentential units, but not the companion treatment of all words as ming (names). Again, this is an assumption made more natural by a feature of Chinese. Chinese common nouns are not only unmarked for singular and plural, but also, like proper nouns (and mass nouns), they stand alone as noun phrases. Although grammatically dividing reference, common noun use was developing reliance on counting sortals. Sortal counting had become standard by the Han Dynasty.

The ideograph translated most commonly in metaphysical formulations as "thing" (wu) yields more plausible claims when translated as "thing-kind." The implicit metaphysics is a part-whole, mereological structure. Thinkers associate 'names' with ways of making distinctions rather than with reference to particulars.

This explains the anomaly of treating all terms as 'names,' but fails to explain the similar treatment of adjectives and verbs. Lack of function marking is again part of a possible explanation. Adjectives used in nominal position did not undergo abstract inflection so theorists treated 'red' and 'gold' as analogous. They could associate descriptive adjectives, like mass nouns, with a range or "extension" and view adjectival "names" as distinguishing one range from others. The ranges distinguished by different "names" can overlap. In those cases, they would use compound "names." Distinguishing between the ways adjectives and nouns worked in compounds produced puzzles for pre-Han theorists. (See Later Mohists)

One place verbs and verbs with ergative transformations were enough like adjectives to yield to analogous treatment. A pattern of using both nouns and adjectives as two-place verbs further reduced any "felt" differences between transitive verbs and substantives. This use replaced belief-contexts. They could express "X believes S is P as X P-s S or as X, using S, deems it P. The natural way of construing the former verb is as a "quote verb." People use the name of the contextually identified stuff; classify or distinguish it into the category of P-stuff.

We should note that we can now identify grammatical distinctions (word order, admissible combinations with other words and particles, etc.) between common and proper nouns, between terms and adjectives, and verbs. My argument is that the implicit ancient Chinese analysis is understandable (not blatantly naive) but not that it is correct.

Another shared assumption is harder to explain. The only explanation is that the view is intuitively as plausible as the contrary assumption that drives much of Western theory of language. Chinese thinkers view language pragmatically. They emphasize the social role--guiding and coordinating group behavior over the descriptive, fact-stating role. The view also fits the background goal of conforming to the intentions of the sage kings. They were moral exemplars and social engineers as well as language "inventors." They formulated the code of behavior (li (rites)). This assumption also reflects the most important known pre-historic use of writing in China, guidance by divination. The earliest forms of Chinese characters known are found on oracle bones unearthed by archeologists. Chinese priests used these then "stored" as an accumulated dao or guide.

Confucius: Rectifying names.

We notice this last feature of Chinese theory of language first in Confucius' "rectifying names." Confucius studied and taught a historical discourse which he attributed to the sage kings. Central among the ancient documents that formed the curriculum of his school was The Book of Ritual--the traditionalist Confucian conception of ethics. Confucius addressed mainly problems in practical interpretation with his students. Studying with Confucius meant learning to do the rites correctly, e.g., wear the right hat at the right time in the right ceremony. His theory reflected the pragmatic relation between language and objects. In order for the traditional discourse to guide us, we must correctly pin its "names" on the world’s "stuff."

Confucius assumed we learn this ability to discriminate by imitation. Teacher-actors model the use of names for us in the course of performing rituals. We extrapolate from these examples in following the code as it applies to us. Confucius called this ‘rectifying names’ and treated it as the key to good government:

Zilu said, ‘The ruler of Wei awaits your taking on administration. What would be master's priority?’ The master replied, ‘Certainly--rectifying names!’ . . . . If names are not rectified then language will not flow. If language does not flow, then affairs cannot be completed. If affairs are not completed, ritual and music will not flourish. If ritual and music do not flourish, punishments and penalties will miss their mark. When punishments and penalties miss their mark, people lack the wherewithal to control hand and foot. Hence a gentleman's words must be acceptable to vocalize and his language must be acceptable as action. A gentleman's language lacks anything that misses--period.(13:3)

Confucius here focused on the relation between language and action, not that between language and objects. His strategy of setting examples threatens a vicious regress in two ways. First, someone in the chain of models must know in some other way what example to set (supposedly the sage king). Second, the example itself requires interpretation in extrapolating it to new states of affairs. Confucian intuitionism was the main way of blocking these regresses. Confucius seemed to regard a mysterious quality, ren (humanity), as the key to correct practical interpretation of the ritual. Humanity is a moral insight that guides the attribution of terms in specific circumstances–guides us in rectifying names..

Notice the absence of definitions in his account. Chinese accounts of language are unswervingly extensional. They rarely invoke any concept such as ‘meaning’, 'idea' or 'concept'. The language-world relation is a political matter. Social authorities tag things for the purpose of guiding discourse. Accordingly, two rival Confucian theories of tagging emerge: one relies on tradition and the other on an innate moral intuition.

We see traces of grammatical topic-comment structure in Confucius’ doctrine. In the place of sentences, describing states of affairs, Literary Chinese attaches "names" to relevant stuff (comments on topics). The topics are typically contextual and Chinese thinkers are sensitive to the context-dependence of language. They rarely reflect on free-standing utterances detached from a social moral context. Chinese linguistic theory focused on the question of what term to assign to things rather than on what the propositional units are true or accurate pictures of reality.

Mozi: language utilitarianism

The natural development of this model (arguably its source, since the dating of the "rectify names" passage is controversial) comes in the work of Confucius' first critic, the utilitarian philosopher Mozi. His early work (and the subsequent elaboration in Later Mohism) focuses on bian (distinctions). A term's use involves a way to shi (is this/right) and to fei (is not this/wrong) in using it. To learn the term is thus to learn to shi/fei appropriately with it. Mozi argued that society should use the pre-conventional or natural ‘will’ toward benefit (and against harm) to guide its shi/fei practice for the words used in social discourse. This initial interpretive proposal turned into a proposal to order the words in guiding discourse differently, i.e., to change Confucius' traditional dao (guide).

Mozi's arguments about spirits and fate clarify how this works. General utility, he argued, favors a social discourse with the string wu-ming (lack fate) and you-shen (have spirits). He represents this conclusion about strings as an example of knowing the dao of you-wu (have/lack). That means making a shi/fei (is this/is not this) distinction for you/wu using the benefit/harm distinction as our guide. We use (have) or (lack) of things when doing so will lead to general utility.

The implication of Mozi's line of analysis was initially anti-realistic. Mozi advocated three standards of language use. The first acknowledged the historical, conventional aspect of language. Our discourse should conform to the guiding intentions of the ancient Sage Kings. Second, language standards should be appropriate for use by ordinary people using their ‘eyes and ears.’ One hypothesis is this means that standards of correct use should be objectively accessible, like measurement standards. Mozi's illustrations include a plumb line, a compass, a square, and stakes for plotting where the sun rises and sets. Finally, we should use words in ways that maximize general utility.

Mozi probably supposed these standards pull in essentially the same direction. He assumed the people's well-being motivated the sage kings and clear standards promote general utility. The utility criterion itself was an example of an objective standard. First, it was the ‘will of nature’ not the product of a particular conventional history, and it was measurement-like.

These standards govern the content and practice of discourse, regulations, injunctions, maxims and slogans. Including any string in the proposed ideal social guiding discourse was ‘making it constant.’ The ideal of a constant discourse dao was of one that could consistently (reliably) and correctly (objectively) guide society. Mozi identified that dao as the one that resulted in the greatest utility for the country and its people. Thus assignment of names was a handmaiden to ethics.

To count as the constant dao, Mozi’s benefit/harm standard must itself be constant. It should be a reliable, unambiguous, and objectively correct, unchanging distinction. He alleged that since it came from tian "nature" rather than from society, convention or contingent history, it was all of these.

Mozi’s attack on conventional guiding discourse led Mencius to defend Confucianism by postulating an innate moral intuition that carried anti-language implications. Mencius argued that language should not manipulate or guide human action. Guidance should only come from the innate patterns or dispositions in the heart-mind. These include an innate ability to shi/fei "is this/is not this" in situations of action choice. The heart-mind selects the appropriate assignment and thus the appropriate behavior. Social language should not distort or reshape those natural moral inclinations. Mencius' argument presupposed that, left to itself, our heart-mind would innately select the correct action for us.

The Laozi also took a negative view of language, but its pragmatic analysis of the effects of language undermined Mencius’ optimism about innate moral psychology. Laozi agrees that we should resist the conventional socialization that comes with language. Learning names means learning one arbitrary way of making distinctions. We also learn to guide our action by making these distinctions. Laozi interprets this as acquiring or changing our desires. Thus acquiring a language constrains our natural spontaneity and creates new, disruptive and usually competitive desires.

Laozi implicitly portrayed natural (pre-linguistic) behavior as much more ‘primitive’ than did Mencius. Few of our desires are innate instinct. Most are learned. Learning names involves training in how to make distinctions and how to ‘desire’ with them. The names, distinctions, desires and conventional actions are linked distortions of natural spontaneity. Absent linguistic embellishment, the natural desires would sustain social concerns that extend no farther than the local agrarian village.

The Laozi highlights the anti-language aspect of intuitive guidance more than did Mencius. It suggests that Mencius’ idea (that the Confucian moral values in particular were natural) was a result of confusing the unconscious result of learning a guiding language with native intuition. The conventional patterning of distinctions and desires is arbitrary. He makes this point in arguing that we can reverse most conventional values. Laozi’s conclusion is his opening line--no guiding discourse is constant.

Later Mohist Realism

Followers of the school of Mozi emphasized theory of language and formulated the most realistic and sophisticated theory of language of the period. Here we mainly summarize their conclusions.

They taught that although language could itself be a source of information, it works only when it shadows objective similarities and differences in reality. They failed to produce a satisfactory account of how objective features guided language distinctions. They did, however, note differences in scope between particular names (John), species terms (horse), and very general terms (thing) and distinguished several types of similarity.

Like their founder, Mozi, the Later Mohists targeted problems in the Confucian posture as name "rectifiers." They thought of their study broadly as bian (distinctions) and assumed that philosophical and ethical disagreements reduced to our having different ways of using language to cluster and label things. A world-guided approach, they believed, would give us an objective basis for settling such disagreements.

They rejected an implicit assumption of rectifying names (that each thing should have only one name appropriate to use in guiding our action toward it). They noted that many things have more than one "name" (my horse, Dobbin, is a thing). Confucian rectification of names addressed the problem of rule conflict by restricting which name was relevant to action here-now. Mohists argued we should not restrict the descriptive scope of names, but the scope of compound action descriptions. For example, a thief is human, but killing a thief (execution) is not (morally) killing a human (murder).

Their most successful result was a series of propositions targeting anti-language and anti-distinctions sentiments. They showed that statements such as "all language is perverse" and "make no distinctions" are self-condemning. They also argued that in any dispute revolving around distinctions, one party must be right and one wrong. If we disagree about the thing over there, one saying it is an ox and the other that it is not an ox, then one will be right. If they are not disputing about a distinction, e.g., when one holds it is ox-stuff and the other that it is dog-stuff, then both could be wrong.

Later Mohism also struggled with a rudimentary theory of composition, focusing mainly on an analysis of compound terms. Given the grammar of ancient written Chinese, such compounding seemed the salient feature of language. They distinguished between two results of compounding terms that suggested a vague metaphysical distinction. The paradigms of each were 'ox-horse' and 'hard-white'. They held the former to be more inclusive (embraced two things that did not mix) while the latter was more particular (everywhere you go you get both).

The School of Names: Gongsun Long and Hui Shi

The analysis of compounds led to a notorious debate with one of the figures identified traditionally as belonging to something called the School of Names. There probably was no school as such. The two thinkers usually included, Gongsun Long and Hui Shi, seemed to have held radically different theories and to represent, respectively, a Confucian and a Daoist analysis of language. Both were likely targeting some aspect of the Later Mohist theory.

Gongsun Long is most famous for his defense of the paradoxical claim "White-horse not horse." "White horse" drew obviously from both Later Mohist compounds–ox-horse and hard-white. Gongsun Long seemed to want to reduce the two to a single analysis.

The interpretation of the paradox is still wildly controversial. The traditional view is that his analysis is broadly Platonic. It holds that Gongsun Long postulated abstractions so the paradox should read "White-horseness is not horseness." The alternative, concrete interpretation draws on the mass-like character of Chinese nouns. It holds that Gongsun Long was arguing for a concrete one-name one-thing analysis, thus "White-horse-stuff is not horse-stuff."

The other traditional figure from the school of names, Hui Shi, was a "debating" companion (possibly the teacher) of the Daoist, Zhuangzi. He concentrated on comparatives and other terms with obviously relativized reference. So, for example, 'tall' does not have any fixed range. Tall for a giraffe is not tall for a horse. Generalizing this feature of relativism in language, Hui Shi apparently concluded no distinctions or differences rested on external reality. All are projections of different perspectives. The appropriate conclusion, he thought, was to treat the world as an absolute one to treat all things as evaluatively equal.

Zhuangzi: Skeptical Relativism

The rediscovery of the Later Mohist analysis confirmed that Zhuangzi, usually considered a Daoist mystic, was deeply influence by these various reflections on language. He seems to have appreciated Laozi's insight that language shapes the patterns of distinctions and valuation that we normally regard as "natural" or "obvious." He probably combined Laozi's view with Hui Shi's critique of the perspectival character most linguistic reference, but without the illegitimate perspective-free claim that all is one.

This combination led him to a nuanced pluralism that he reflected in his philosophical style--making most philosophical discussion take place in dialogues between paradigms of radically different perspectives (including non-human ones). One advantage of this posture was that it did not commit him to any self-condemning anti-language conclusion. At the same time, he could incorporate the Daoist skepticism and distancing from conventional wisdom and the pretensions of sages to authoritarian insights into The Dao.

His analysis highlighted the role of indexicals in language--particularly "this" and "that." They do refer in each instance of use, but what they refer to changes. Anything can be a "this" in some context and anything can be a "not this." Thus, while agreeing with the Mohists that objective features influence what terms of a language pick out, he could note that they do it in an unruly variety of ways. There seems no limit to the number of ways we might assign terms in choosing things.

Drawing on Hui Shi's argument, Zhuangzi’s analysis suggests that we apply even 'same' and 'different' perspectivally. What counts as "the same" from one point of view or purpose would be "different" from another. He generalized the notion of perspective to include all the implicit standards behind the bitter dispute between Mohists and Confucians about which Dao was correct. They say shi 'this/right' and fei 'not this/wrong' from different perspectives, different starting points and so the dispute looks irresolvable. Merely persuading someone or getting someone to agree with your side in such a dispute is not enough to show that you have made the right bian 'distinction.'

Exactly what substantive position Zhuangzi offers is open to interpretive dispute. However classifying him as a Daoist together with accepting a conventional view of Taoism as a version of mystical or intuitive monism creates a problem. Zhuangzi marshals powerful arguments against both intuitionism and monism. He shows many signs of a pragmatic analysis (perhaps drawn from Mohism) of the usefulness of certain kinds of language (including abiding by ordinary convention).

Especially in view of his detached, fantasy dialogue style of writing philosophy, the safest conclusion may be that he is a skeptic, and most likely one who accepts an implicit realist background. There may be a right way to attach names to things, but we cannot easily decide what it is. Further, we can never decisively rule out the possibility of a better way of doing.

Xunzi: Confucian Conventionalism

The final chapter in Chinese language theory comes in the ‘Rectifying Names’ chapter of the Xunzi. The text focuses on language because in order to reassert that ritual is the only standard of correct behavior. It rejects Mencian intuitionism and gleans insights from Zhuangzi and the dialecticians. The apparent moral it drew was this. Since reality cannot be a standard of language correctness, the default standard must be convention.

Appeal to the usage of the Sage kings determines correct name use. The correct account of that usage is a historical tradition (interpreted, the Xunzi insists, by the judgment of Confucian scholar-gentlemen). Thus, the text portrays Confucianism as vindicated by the very weakness Mozi had exposed in launching the philosophical dialectic. The Xunzi goes on to construct an overtly conventionalist theory of language which carried political implications.

The Xunzi introduced an important clarification. It distinguished between two kinds of distinctions: noble-base and same-different. The former corresponds roughly to value distinctions and the latter to empirical or descriptive ones. The descriptive distinctions enable us to interact with other cultures. A king may alter these ‘miscellaneous’ terms. Even a king, however, should not change conventional evaluative distinctions (ranks, titles, punishments, or anything in the li (ritual)). For these we rely on the inherited sage kings’ guide (via the scholar-gentlemen’s interpretation). The Xunzi regards moral terms as conventional ‘artifice’ arising from thought, not from nature.

Political authorities rectify names for the original Confucian purposes (order and obedience). Xunzi’s treats the positions and paradoxes of the dialecticians in these political terms. Philosophy of language causes social instability by undermining the public guiding language. Philosophers confuse the conventional relations of names and make shi-fei (is this/not this) unclear. This the ruler must prohibit. We must have only one standard of terminology. The king, not disputing philosophers and warring schools, will govern introduction of new descriptive terms.

The king should keep three things in mind as he creates names:

1) the reason for having names:

*    The reason for having names is coordinating social behavior and achieving social order. Hence, value terms govern how we assign descriptive terms.

2) the basis of classifying as similar and different:

*    We classify by taking the distinctions delivered by sense organs and using them according to the dictates of a heart imbued with the correct evaluative distinctions.

3) The essentials of regulating names.

*    The basis of regulating names is social order and the preservation of a stable, traditional scheme of language.

Xunzi’s account of classifying similar and different takes a markedly empirical (epistemological) turn. Unlike the Mohists, Xunzi did not rely on claims that reality presented objective similarities and differences. Zhuangzi had argued that human standards of *is this/not this* were no more natural than the opposing shi/fei ones of other animals. Taking Zhuangzi’s hint, Xunzi focused on human sense reactions to reality. Indeed, no neutral, inter-species ways of distinguishing things as similar and different exist. The senses of one species work differently from those of another, however, any within one species we find similar distinctions. In humans, these ground moral conventions.

All humans sense and respond to approximately the same range of natural distinctions. The eyes of humans distinguish the same range and bands of colors, the mouth the same range of taste, the ears the same range and discriminations of pitch, etc. The shared nature of inter-species distinction-making underwrites the possibility of community and language. Thus, we abandon appeal to cosmic nature and rely on what is pragmatically possible for humans in achieving natural human goals.

Our language conventionally clusters some sensible differences and ignores others. Historical, conventional standards dictate how it does this. Mastering the inherited, sage king’s scheme of values transmits these norms into the cultured gentleman’s heart. The heart rules the sense organs (as it did for Mencius). It determines what range of sensible discriminables counts to form a category for guiding purposes. Thus the categories mesh with the moral system of the sage kings and match the clustering they originated.

Clearly the authors of the Xunzi absorbed a good deal of their contemporary theory of language. It is less clear if they understood the arguments and motivation. They dispatched the problem of compound terms by ignoring it. ‘If a single term is sufficient to convey the intent then use that and otherwise use a compound term.’ The intent, presumably, is the conventionally understood intent. They do accept the Mohists’ view of names with varying scopes and disown the one-name-one-thing ideal. The only important kind of clarity or consistency is the constancy of convention.

The Xunzi treats a number of related problems about names in sensitive fashion. It views spatial separation as a basis for describing two things of the same kind as two ‘stuffs.’ Then it defines *change* as being when a thing’s spatial position does not change (exhibits characteristic continuity) and its type does. We then treat it as the same thing that has changed characteristics. This discussion of metamorphosis is the closest approximation to the classical Western problem of change.

Whether or not the Xunzi group understood the theories behind the paradoxes they criticize, They clearly did not approve of them. The text exhibits neither philosophical fascination with solving conceptual puzzles for their own sake nor using them to drive theory. He criticizes paradoxical statements on primarily political grounds--the deleterious social effects of asserting their conclusions. Each of them upsets conventional ways of using terms. Its solution is political not intellectual--ban them!

The Xunzi classifies the paradoxes into three groups that vaguely suggests the line of thought leading to them. Each it argues, violates one of the three insights into names. The reason for naming is coordinating behavior, so paradoxes which ‘use names to confuse names’ include the Mohist’s claim that ‘killing thieves is not killing men.’ It uses a theory of names to yield a conclusion that sounds unconventional. So we forbid saying them.

The second set is ‘use reality to confuse names’ and the central examples are Hui Shi’s relativity paradoxes. They ignore the shared human empirical basis for assigning similarity and difference and use the fact that having different perspectives on reality might lead us to saying unconventional things about size and shape. So the king will forbid saying them.

The final group uses names to confuse reality and includes ‘White Horse not Horse.’ His analysis does not help resolve the interpretive puzzles about the line of reasoning since it addresses only the pragmatic consequences of allowing such theorizing. His solution, once again, is for the king to avoid and prevent such distracting sophistry.

The Aftermath: Death of Philosophy

One of Xunzi’s students was a minor royal in one of the warring states. He became a central figure of a school called Legalists. He had learned a smattering of Chinese theory of language. He exaggerated the threat of interpretative anarchy to justify repressing philosophy and language creativity entirely.

He followed Xunzi’s argument that the ruler should enforce uniformity in language but rejected using a scholarly tradition as the norm. His based his theory of regulation and punishment on a crude argument about shape and name. It takes us back to the unexplained Confucian notion that names by themselves guide action. An official post is a capsule description of function (duties) the holder should perform. Hanfeizi never says how. In the light of recent discoveries, this doctrine appears to be an application of the doctrine of a cult of ruler worship (Huang-Lao). It taught that the dao (guide) was in nature and names were embedded in natural shapes.

Legalism became the official doctrine of the repressive Qin empire that brought the Classical period of Chinese philosophy to an abrupt halt. In the aftermath, the insights Chinese theory of language slipped into obscurity. Huang-Lao became the dominant theory surviving during China’s philosophical Dark Age until the importation of Buddhist theory. The early Medieval Daoist interpreters argued that we can have names only for things we see. Suppression had worked its magic!




(not, not-this, or wrong)



(speech or vernacular)



(humanity or benevolence)









(distinction or disagreement)



(this or right)

¬O «D


(is-is not, this-not this or right-wrong)



(heaven, nature or sky)



(way or guide)



(literature, writing, or culture)



(thing or thing-kind)

µL ©R


(lack fate)



(language or words)

¦³ ©R


(have fate)

¦³ µL


(have-lack or being-non-being)

Reading List

Bao, Zhiming. 1990 "Language and World View in Ancient China," Philosophy East and West Vol XL, No. 2 pp. 195-210.

Chao, Y. R.. 1955 "Notes on Chinese Grammar and Logic," Philosophy East and West 5/1 pp. 31-41.

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

Hansen, Chad. 1983 Language and Logic in Ancient China (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press) .

Hansen, Chad. May 1985 "Chinese Language, Chinese Philosophy, and 'Truth'," Journal of Asian Studies Vol XLIV, No. 3 pp. 491-519.

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

Hansen, Chad. March 1993 "Chinese Ideographs and Western Ideas," Journal of Asian Studies 52/2 pp. 373-399.