Conceptions of Knowledge, Lecture eight

Hansen on Grounding Chinese Philosophy in Philosophy of Language

Chad Hansen claims that Chinese philosophy up to his time is interpreted in a lacking way. He calls this way the “ruling interpretation”. This interpretation was spearheaded by Benjamin Schwartz and A.C. Graham. According to this interpretation, Chinese philosophy falls into three categories:

Hansen claims a necessity for a unified theory of Chinese philosophy. Doing so would make us realize that all Chinese philosophers debate about Dao. Dao in this sense should be read as “guiding discourse”.

The so called “ruling interpretation” relies heavily on the Confucian tradition. This tradition, due to being the most influential in ancient China, has the largest textual lineage. Furthermore, this interpretation relies on the idea of separated schools of thought. As a matter of fact, the schools were only given their name sin the later Han-dynasty. Hansen goes on to argue that the ruling interpretation is contaminated with Indo-European ideas.

In classical western and Indian thought, philosophers try to bridge reality and out expression of it in language. In these traditions, this bridge is often formed by ideas. In modern (analytic) philosophy, this focus on ideas is moved to beliefs. However, according to Hansen, we are yet to explain our capacity for making this bridge with language. Coming from this tradition, it would be easy to judge the Chinese tradition as attempting to answer the same questions as the western one.

Hansen's first move towards a unified theory is separating ancient Chinese philosophy into four periods.

  1. The Ru-Mo (Confucian-Moist) period, in which the main debates are about ethics and whether it ought to be guided by tradition or a utilitarian-like principle.
  2. The anti-language (Laozi-Mencius) period, which rejects guidance from language.
  3. The analytic (Zhaungzi) period, in which there are created standards for though and argument
  4. The authoritarian (Xunzi-Hanfeizi) period, in which language is a tool for politics.

In order to prove his theory about Dao being guiding discourse, Hansen compares it to computers. Computers have certain hardware, the state of which can be changed by software or code. This is the same for human beings, our code being our social environment and upbringing. Depending on this guiding discourse (code) we produce different arguments and behaviours (output). In this way, language influences our thoughts, desires and behaviours.