May 24, 2009

Musings on Chad Hansen's Logic and Language in Ancient China: Part 1, Chapter 1

I've long been a fan of Chad Hansen's work, but never until now felt the motivation to voice my adulation and few objections in a more formal medium, and have left my musings for stray conversations with other well-read Chinese philosophers.

My fascination with Chad Hansen is basic. I find, in general, that Chinese philosophers are not so much enthralled by the formalities of logic, despite being well-prepared for such analysis given their linguistic strives (A formal language is still a language!), and it parallels my criticism with the Analytic philosophers of date, who are very honed in their sub-disciplines and are highly skilled logicians, yet do not regularly seek insight outside of their own history when the topic of discussion is relevant to their sub-disciplinal interests. Yet these two traditions (and I assume others) have much to borrow from each other, from fresher terminology and reviewed considerations on categorical distinctions to real solutions to what are becoming longstanding issues in the Analytic philosophy of language, metaphysics, ethics, politics, metaphilosophy, philosophy of science, and philosophy of religion, to name the biggest that come to mind.

Chad Hansen fascinates me because he saw (or so I assume from his writing) exactly what I saw, divided philosophical worlds (one Analytic, the other Chinese) that had a lot to offer each other, and each the tools to help the other.

The first chapter to Chad Hansen's book Logic and Language in Ancient China titled "Methodological Reflections" gives a pretty good defense of the coherentist method of interpretation and makes its best cases against some of the dismissive remarks that I still hear about Chinese philosophy. His defense of coherentism is present, but more looming in the background of his argument than standing to the fore. At the fore of his argument (which are little pieces that help substantiate coherentist interpretive methodologies) are his well-reasoned denunciations of some common dismissals or condescensions of Chinese philosophy, which I have listed below:

  • The Special Logic Retort: Chinese people weren't applying Western (by which they mean Aristotelian, philosophical, and mathematical) logics, so their reasoning must adhere to some other kind of basis for justification.
  • The "Think Like a Chinese" Slogan: Only Chinese people have real access to Chinese thought, and so one's mindset must be like a Chinese person's in order to understand an ancient Chinese text correctly.
  • The Non-Philosophy Retort: Chinese philosophy is really a separate form of literature, a "poetry" or a "cataloguing" that aimed to preserve literary elements over validity.

Hansen's own pages make a thorough destruction of the first retort in some relevant prose, summarized fully in just a few key quotations:

"So 'special logic' was originally thought of as a descriptive claim with a frankly racist content: people who are racially Chinese have different (and incommensurable) dispositions to draw conclusions from premises. The special logic claim was used to demand tolerance from Westerners who found Chinese philosophical theories -- in a world which has become almost a specialized vocabulary item for things Chinese -- inscrutable. Saying Chinese were illogical had a dual effect. It allowed us to acknowledge our inability to understand the ideas and yet to regard those ideas as a 'profound' alternative to our own world view. We could argue for the value of what we could not understand without threatening our own self-image as knowers: 'After all, we can't be expected to understand this'" (13).

"Truth and logical consequence are relative to a language. And there are numerous inferences in a language like modern English for which no simple and direct corresponding inference can be found in classical Chinese (and vice versa, of course). Uncritically assuming corresponding inferences is a common source of distortion of Chinese thought. There are, for example, the inferences built into the meanings of individual words. Ought and right have the property in modern English that 'education morally ought to be available to everyone' entails 'everyone has a right to education.' 'This object is round' entails 'this object has the quality of roundness.' Such inferences are analytic (i.e. follow by meaning alone) in English.

"Now, if we were to translate some sentences of a Chinese text as, say, 'Everyone ought to have an education,' and 'this is round,' we may not use these sentences as proof that the thinkers in question advocated equal human rights or theories of abstraction. Such inferences cannot be attributed to Chinese thinkers on that kind of evidence. The failure of these inferences, while important to understanding the differences in Chinese thought, does not justify the special logic retort since it does not betoken any inconsistency in the thought at all" (16).

"To support the special logic retort descriptively, Chang's claim [that Aristotelian logic is built on Western language systems, a heinous accusation against Chinese and Greek-rooted philosophy] would have to be that Chinese regularly and legitimately token and accept arguments which 'Aristotelian' or Western logic would call invalid. But that hypothesis gives far too much potential for strange beliefs to Chinese people. Suppose, contrary to fact, that Chinese reasoning regularly and legitimately tokened arguments in the form of Kung-sun Lung's [公孫龍的]) dialogue:

  1. All yellow horses are horses.
  2. No yellow horse is a while horse.
  3. Therefore, a white horse is not a horse.

"With a minimum of imagination, one could convince any Chinese thinker of a plethora of weird beliefs: Confucius was not Chinese since Mencius is Chinese and Mencius is not Confucius; chickens are not alive since snakes are alive and snakes are not chickens. No culture that routinely accepted such inferences could have had sagacity enough to rule that empire for two thousand years" (17)!

Of course, Hansen could have saved himself a lot of ink had he just written the retort and uttered this truism, one that should burn in the minds of anyone who wants to criticize formal logic on natural language grounds:

"The logic of which we normally speak is not the logic of any specific natural language. It can be used, via translation, to test inferences in any language. Once we do accept a translation of a sentence of English into the logical symbolism then we can test its validity. But exactly the same is true of German, Swahili, Farsi, and Chinese (ancient and modern)' (18).

For Hansen, as long as an interpretation of data (in his case, of Chinese philosophical texts) sustains itself as logically valid (even if unsound), then we have no reason to posit a special "Chinese logic," and any such discovery would in fact be a secondary discovery upon the affirmed conclusion that there is no coherent way to mold any philosopher's work. However, the problem with even this approach is that we can just as well use our logic to show that a philosopher's works produced inconsistent arguments, and in this case, only the prevalence of such error (as Hansen suggests) would even be a remote indicator of ancient Chinese illogicality in one form of inference or another. Such illogicality, though, already presupposes assessment by "Western" logical means, so the positing of a foreign logic works as little more than a patronization of a failed argument, adding generalized insult to specific injury, as it were.

The "Think Like a Chinese" Slogan is another misled prescription with yet more "frankly racist content." The notion of "special access" to a given philosophy from a given era and geography and the implicit isolation that such a "special access" forces on foreign inquiry relies on an inability of a speaker to gain sufficient proficiency in the language being applied in the prose of that area.

Early in my undergraduate years, I had to refute an expert in German philosophy on exactly this mistake, as she was certain that because my upbringing was not Chinese, I would always lack the social and linguistic background that would allow for a native understanding of the Chinese texts. On two grounds, this thinking is misguided, first because, for the person in question, it undermines her own career, and basically shuns herself from knowing Hegel or Schopenhauer because she, herself, was not of nineteenth century German birth and upbringing; second because there are a plethora of non-Americans who have a plenty thorough understanding of American pragmatism, and that I have no special access to it just because I happen to be American. It may take more work to understand the subtleties of intended reference in foreign language, and if that access is "special" or "privelaged" (not just more convenient because of my prior training), there is no reason to posit that foreign language and social history is unlearnable, and therefore its evaluation impossible.

However, there is another, even more appalling feature of the prescription to "think like a Chinese," that Chinese people have some sort of automatic access to Chinese thought that any foreign commentator would lack. This is tantamount to the racist assumption that all Chinese people know gongfu in that both assume that genetic lineage presupposes knowledge of an empirically gained skillset. The truth is that most Chinese people, just like most Westerners, don't know much of anything about any philosophy. Many Chinese are raised Buddhist and Confucian, but they don't bother to examine what the reasonings for such an upbrining are. In high school, most schools force students to memorize Chinese classics, but they don't examine their meanings and values (Perhaps most humorously to the philosophically inclined, many of my Chinese and Taiwanese friends can recite most of the Sanzijing 三字經, but don't really treat it as a philosophical lesson, but as a children's game.). Chinese philosophy is philosophy, and philosophy takes years of rigorous study to learn and perform with proficiency. Having Chinese as a native language may make their learning of the ancient texts a bit easier, and their private considerations brewing for more years than those of a recent inductee may proffer insight into Chinese philosophy sooner, but none of this excludes those from other backgrounds to access and to assess Chinese philosophical positions with equal or even better points, even if they are "late bloomers" because of comparable disadvantages.

These reasons are not the ones given by Chad Hansen, but they are sufficiently analogous. Hansen more closely argues that we cannot start by thinking as Chinese philosophers because we have to first learn how they think, and we only get to learn how they think by interpreting their works. Secondly, if we are assuming that this "Chinese thinking" contains some sort of implicit "Chinese logic" that defies the allowed translation of their sentences to standard predicate calculus and such, we are back to condescension without the sincere attempt to understand ancient Chinese philosophy, not even to clearly outline its inconsistencies. In other words, Hansen is just being any wise philosopher, claiming we can't simply satisfy ourselves with difficulty in comprehension or logical contradiction and just content ourselves to remain ignorant and contradictory. If there are mistakes, they deserve to be clarified. If there are none, they deserve the same philosophical merit as any other popularly studied philosophy does. It's as plain as that.

Hansen treats the third Non-Philosophy Retort as a result of a wrongheaded approach to "thinking like a Chinese," which actually forces interpretative ventures to seek exactly what they train themselves to find, and thus by treating the work as "poetry" or "cataloguing," will mold their interpretation to be more poetic or more catalogue-like than philosophical. Hansen has strong words against the "injunctions of a certain characterization become a priori methodological predispositions which are self-fulfilling" (25).

"In any case, I have never seen, on any interpretation, an account of some sentence or doctrine of, say, Chuang-tzu [莊子], saying, 'I am really trying very hard to be unsystematic and just to catalogue as many disparate items of information as possible,' or Lao-tzu [老子] implying, 'It is more important that your phrases be balanced than that your principles be correct.' I am naturally suspicious of anyone who implies that this is the way ancient Chinese thinkers viewed themselves. In fact, for the most part, on most plausible interpretations, all these thinkers had just the opposite view" (25).

I should mention something about this chapter that struck me with a very Rortian reaction. Hansen claims that a methodology of interpretation arrives from an assumption that we are dealing with works of philosophy, and therefore set philosophical standards for its value (consistency, cogency, and philosophical import), and that we will only know that a work is not philosophically worthwhile until a thorough investigation shows that nothing of philosophical interest is present in the translated and interpreted text. Hansen adds, though, "And even then our proof is never complete" (26). Hansen seems to be saying that our proof that a text is not philosophically worthwhile is never complete, which I find plainly incorrect. Philosophers have standards for rejecting statements, and once those standards are violated (say, the inference of a contradiction occurs), then the statements are either rejected outright or revised to avoid some problems, like Otto Neurath's ship analogy.

Now, we could stretch the value of something as "philosophically worthwhile" to mean pedagogy on how not to argue, but I think we're assaulted with too many verbal and scriptual examples of that lesson, and we don't need every one of them to make the lesson clear. Eventually, writing loses its philosophical interest, and it has nothing to do with the time or culture that uttered it, but of developments that prove the earlier work to be flawed in reason.

My second problem with this chapter lies with the coherence standard of intepretation because Hansen himself gives a plain reason why we should not necessarily think coherence is the best way to determine the accuracy of interpretation of a foreign text. Some writing is just contradictory. I face a dilemma here because I don't believe that an interpretive theory needs to attempt to "reconcile contradiction or select one of the approaches as...more central than the other" (3). I don't believe that we should accept contradiction, either, but that we should be careful in seeing a sentence of a foreign language or unusual sentential structure as informally erred or contradictory, and that further linguistic investigation of a text should either reassure or question a claim of contradiction or error. What we believe to be more central to the overall text should not play as big a role as what the individual arguments, regardless of how much attention an author gave to it, contribute to the most strongly sustained and contemporarily maintained philosophical positions. Check for fresh lettuce in the middle before you throw the head away. If there's anything to really be gained from the Chinese religious history in this respect, it's their practice of selective syncretism, or as Egg Shen said in Big Trouble in Little China: "We take what we want!"

Then again, maybe I'm just moving "centrality" from a single text to the whole philosophic arena.

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