Conceptions of Knowledge, Lecture nine

Hansen's hypothesis about classical Chinese thought

In Hansen's work “A Daoist theory of Chinese thought”, Hansen investigates why early Chinese thought has such a strong emphasis on Dao.

The first hypotheses Hansen discusses are historical views. China and with it Chinese philosophy developed in a relative isolation. Early Chinese writings were created for ritualistic purposes. These rituals were performed to receive guidance form deceased ancestors. According to Hansen, this focus on guidance remains prevalent in Chinese philosophy. Furthermore, early Chinese philosophy develops in the warring states period, meaning there is a strong emphasis on change.

Hansen then moves on to discuss linguistic interpretations for the prevalence of Dao. The Chinese written language is believed by some to have started as a pictographic language. There is a widespread debate on whether this is true or not. Hansen argues against participating in this debate. He claims that we should just recognize that Chinese characters directly carry meaning. These meaning carrying characters have been used in many different languages. The mastery of these languages involves only pattern recognition. This results in a wildly different philosophy of language when compared to philosophy done in Alphabetic languages. Primarily, there is little focus on how we comprehend language in Chinese philosophy.
Furthermore, as spoken languages, Chinese languages have a strong emphasis on tone. These tones also carry meaning directly in contrast to Indo-European languages.
Another mediator of language is work order. Chinese languages do not have complex morphology, therefore the function of a certain word is determined only by its position in a sentence.
Lastly, Indo-European languages make a distinction between mass- and count-nouns (EG. Water or Horse respectively). This distinction, according to Hansen, leads to a philosophy in which reality has multiple different structures. These forms of ontology are absent from Chinese thought where the mass- count-noun distinction does not exist.