Conceptions of Knowledge, Lecture twelve

Conceptions of Knowledge, Lecture twelve

Truth in a different key: Refuting Ames and Hansen

Ames and Hanson both believed ancient Chinese philosophy do minimally discuss metaphysics. Hanson believes the Chinese language to prevent certain metaphysical deliberations. Ames believes Chinese language only discourages metaphysics while encouraging social ethics. A.C. Graham disagrees with both Hanson and Ames. He believes ancient Chinese philosophy to actually be primarily metaphysical. This belief is paired with a different view on the Chinese-language which lends the language more to metaphysical deliberation.

Graham’s criticism of Ames on language

Ames claims Chinese language to primarily focus on nouns and names. This would result in a focus on positions in ancient China. Graham is surprised by this claim. He claims that verbs are more important in classical Chinese than nouns and names. Furthermore, Graham believes this focus on verbs to fit Ames’ further claims better.

Second, Ames believes metaphysical deliberation to only be possible in a language with a subject-predicate structure which is absent from Chinese. Graham refutes this by saying that the Chinese language does have a subject-predicate system (more commonly called a topic-comment system). Furthermore, it is possible for a Chinese sentence without a subject to still assert something (potentially metaphysical) about reality.

Another claim of Ames is that Chinese philosophers had little regard for science, shown by the lack of counterfactuals in the Chinese language. Graham claims however that there are a multitude of examples of counterfactuals and Science in the Chinese language and philosophies respectively.

Graham’s criticism of Hansen

Graham agrees with Hansen’s claim that ancient Chinese philosophers spoke primarily of practical ethics. Hansen claims that Chinese philosophers did not care about facts or truth but only about social benefit. According to Hansen, this is displayed by the Mohist belief in spirits. Graham rejects this generalization by pointing out that the Moists were interested in the actual reality of ghosts and spirits exactly because they insisted on testing for them. Otherwise, they would have just affirmed their existence, for this claim went mostly uncontested.

Another claim of Hansen is that Chinese philosophy “divides things down” from everything. In other words, we start with everything and delimit it to individuals. Western philosophies would start with individuals and add up towards everything. Graham is sympathetic to disbelief.

What Graham disagrees with though is Hansen’s mass-noun hypothesis. While Graham recognizes that there is no grammatical distinction between mass- and count-nouns in ancient Chinese languages, he still holds that there is a distinction in everyday use.

In general, Graham believes both Ames and Hansen to make too broad of claims about Chinese grammar in particular and by extension Chinese philosophy.