August 18, 2009

Two Concerns with A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought

I should mention before starting that, upon an inquiry, I listed the text at which I'm about to gripe as one of my fifteen most influential books in my entire book-reading history, and while I find his writing to be problematic or false in four respects, I find almost all of the rest of his text to be correct in both broad strokes and minor details. Its words adeptly confirmed my preconceptions about the function of language within the ancient Chinese culture (though I believe he effectively undoes "Indo-European biases" and "folk linguistics" more generally) most deeply, and it gave credence to just a few suspicions that should strike readers from the Western tradition:
  • Importation of Indo-European folk psychological biases into the reading of ancient Chinese philosophy, even though the terminological distinctions present in ancient Chinese literature have neither the need nor allotment for said biases, pronates such a reader to mislabel his own unreflected errors as those of the great thinkers of ancient China.
  • The concern for truth in ancient Chinese ethics doesn't lie in the truth of the normative evaluations or prescriptions, themselves, but in the social beneficience, efficacy, and constancy of employment upon the use of those evaluative measures and prescriptions within the community. In other words, it doesn't matter so much to ancient Chinese ethicists what the "moral facts" are, but (to quote Russell, in his antagonism to it) "what [they] think would have beneficient social effects if [they, the ethical propositions] were believed" and used precisely and pervasively within a linguistic community.
  • For the ancient Chinese, language is a legislative, not semantic matter. Thus, accuracy in language is based on appeal to a legislation.
  • The above-mentioned legislation, for every early Chinese philosophical group, will appeal either to their cultural or linguistic tradition and heritage, or to a preconceived notion of "natural order of things," ordained by some "self-evident" level of authority, or both.
  • Mengzi's innatist arguments were philosophically inept against and largely irrelevant to the Mohists' push for heavy revision of the Confucian ethos, its demands for objective measures of normative evaluation, its dual inquiry for what the standards of morality are why morality should matter at all (his open question and obligation question).
First Concern, Validity by Set Relation:

This is of a technical bit that Hansen wrote in discussing Mengzi's apologetics for logical incompetence, which, while still true that Mengzi doesn't appear to demonstrate competence with logic, the Mohists' or otherwise, really isn't a logical error on any front.
"The Mohists analyzed and criticized an algebraic form of inference. The algebraic form goes as follows: if [X is Y]. then is [KX is KY] where K is any constant term. For example, a horse is an animal, the head of a horse is the head of an animal; riding a horse is riding and animal, and so on.

"The Mohists, we we shall see later, show that this apparently cogent inference is invalid" (p.192).
This follows to...
"The rejection of the algebraic argument form is valid. If it goes wrong in even one instance, then (in its simple form at least) it cannot be a valid argument form. They correctly undermine the inference procedure that makes "killing-thief not killing-person" appear to be a paradox. The matching of phrases is not reliable. Their solution involved reading the phrases non-extentionally. They had a logically impeccable argument for rejecting this proposed inference form" (p.257).
This appears to confuse validity with adequate definition. Mohists are free to redefine the terms how they please, and they may set the conditions such that thieves are outside of the domain of persons. However, that has no bearing on the validity of the logical form of the statement.

Perhaps there is no other easier mirror of the axiomatic force of the proposition given above than with axiom K (Kripke's Distribution Axiom) within modal logic:

□(P ⊃ Q) |- (□P ⊃ □Q)

The proof in the Mohist case would follow like this in a normal modal logic:
  1. □(P ⊃ Q) ⊃ (□P ⊃ □Q), by Axiom K
  2. | (P ⊃ Q), by ACP
  3. || □P, by ACP
  4. ||| ◊~Q, by ACP
  5. |||| ~Q, by 4, ◊I
  6. |||| ~P, by 2,5, MT
  7. |||| P, by 3, □I
  8. |||| (P & ~P), by 6,7, Conj.
  9. ||| ~◊~Q, by 5-8, CP
  10. ||| (◊~Q & ~◊~Q), by 4,9, Conj.
  11. || ~◊~Q, by 4,9, Conj.
  12. || ~~□~~Q, by 11, Equiv.
  13. || □~~Q, by 12, DNE
  14. || □Q, by 13, DNE
  15. | (□P ⊃ □Q), by 3-15, CP
  16. (P ⊃ Q) ⊃ (□P ⊃ □Q), by 2-15, CP
There have been various renditions applying this axiom in one respect or another, most strikingly epistemic logic (which looked most similar to Hansen's original notation), but this concept even applies to predicate logic in various degrees, both between terms and predicate symbols and between quantifications and conditional formulas under the quantified scope.

Actually, this logical inference is allowed by all of the major logics that I know, and appears essential for even a mereological spin to be coherent (something that Hansen attributed to pre-Han Chinese thinkers in his other book). It's a simple effect of the transitivity property in set-inclusion, and since identity is covered under transitivity, reflexivity, symmetry, and antisymmetry, it follows for identity propositions, and therein for algebraic logics, as well. The strike of the intuition for the inference appears to be unfairly contrasted against the soundness of the claims it produces, which is a matter over definitional adequacy and soundness of premise, not validity.

Second Concern, Hasty Dismissal of Psychological Egoism:

Surprisingly, for a book elaborating on the philosophies of the preeminent thinkers in ancient Chinese philosophy and its contemporary commentators, Yangism gets a rather sparse treatment, which he legitimizes for two reasons: most Yangist material is second-hand and of dubious reliability, and also Yangism couldn't play into any of the other major schools because of its combined anarchism and anti-conventionalism (a Daoist feature) and its appropriation of self as the innate natural bias from which all moral judgments are and are best made (approached Mohist-ically).

I would say that it is fortunate that Hansen is less outspoken about Yangism. I grew to dread the unfair slights the ethical and psychological egoisms of Yangzi would endure given his brief, and hasty dismissal of the psychological egoist altogether:
"Our Western bias toward psychological egoism stems in part from the Christian doctrines of original sin and, in turn, from classical Platonic denigration of the physical. We learned to value the intellect as morally transcendent. Reason should control our base, animal feelings and emotions. This tradition influenced Western thinkers to ignore genuine and undeniable social tendencies in humans and to treat moral rationality as an ability to transcend our instinctive nature.

"The great works of the Western world give scattered, grudging acknowledgment that humans are social animals, but they reduce most of our social inclinations to a deep kind of egoism. One's apparent goals may be altruistic or moral. Our real ends, they insist, are self-interested (say, avoiding guilt or gaining approbation). Since we have a desire to be good, we are merely egoistically satisfying one of our desires when we act altruistically.

"For two hundred years, Western philosophers have understood the fallacy of these explanations [citing Butler]. Naturally it is my desire. Otherwise, it would not motivate me. This does not make the desire a desire for my welfare. The content of the desire is for the well-being of others. That we have such desires is all a psychological moralist needs to show to rebut the psychological egoist. And obviously we do. Despite its continued popularity and tough-minded veneer, psychological egoism is empirically naive and supported by a conceptual confusion.

"Another, more elaborate, argument for psychological egoism instead explains our altruistic desires by social training. The training process, it alleges, inherently relies on selfish desires. At best, this argument shows that our social desires are psychological acquisitions, not that we do not have them. This argument would challenge Mencius's innatism, but not the position of Mozi and Confucius. Again, however, this additional premise may confuse the existence of an innate desire with its object. It is not clear that the desire to learn language, to mimic, to idealize our parents, and so forth are selfish in content. They are simple, natural, innate dispositions.

"There are other currently fashionable reasons for doubting that the innate structure of human nature is egoistic. Our tough-minded cynics about human nature tend not to notice that sociobiological cynicism contradicts egoistic cynicism. Sociobiology has focused attention on how our genetically implanted dispositions help preserve a genetic code (Writers talk about selfish genes to make this theory sound tough-minded and realistic.) Any parent recognizes that we have an inclination to have, nurture, care for, educate, and then release offspring to the world. This inclination is not in the interest of the individual but the species, the gene pool.

"The Chinese view certainly seems to capture something important about our social nature. A dispassionate, unprejudiced view of human nature must, it seems, acknowledge Mencius's portrait of human nature. If his observations are not enough to prove that human nature is good, they are certainly adequate to show that human nature is social.

"Each of Mencius's seeds describes a plausibly universal feature of a human psyche. All but the most miserable psychopath reacts with feelings for the sufferings and joys of others. Despite the 'looking out for number one' pop-psychology view of self-sufficient healthy egos, we are all affected by the praise and blame of our peers. We do feel shame and conform our behavior to others' expectations. We conform in manners, dress, political opinion, language -- in so many ways that egoistic explanations empty, uninformative formulas. Better to say that these are part of our natural social nature. There is a natural human instinct to cultivate and internalize social practices and to participate in ritual forms in concert with others. And finally, it is true, despite the self-contradictory advice of the moral skeptic, we cannot help making value judgments. We would hardly be recognizable as humans if we did not" (pp.167-168).
What I find most striking about this passage is his claim that psychological egoism results from conceptual confusion. It's striking in its irony. Every astute egoist I've read appears to make the exact accusation against people who pose the arguments above (both his and Butler's) as some sort of refutation of the innateness of self-interest as the primary guiding force to all human behavior.

The harshest criticisms by both authors is better described as a problem of scope. If we simply define self as a being who refers to himself in the first person and interest as possession of an objective derived from that self, then self-interest is equivalent to intentionality. Psychological egoists, to these critics, state that egoism is therein not an empirical theory about ethics, but just another "tough-minded" synonym for a less controversial theory about all human action, a sort of crass way of putting that of course everyone is "self-interested" insofar as they are selves and have interests. The question on the mind of the ethicist isn't that, but what the objectives of those interests include.

To repeat, psychological egoism asserts that the consequences, not the origins, of action are what we use to dictate the moral worth of an action, albeit in sometimes counter-intuitive causal reasoning (i.e. grenade-diving martyrdom). Psychological egoism has only to explain away these contrary cases, since the normative ethicist is not the one who inquires into intentionality, but into the the empirical standards by which we can judge any behavior as morally right/good or morally wrong with universal accuracy.

Hansen's A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought is a highly enlightened Analytic take on the areas of Chinese philosophy he more thoroughly considers, and it is a great exposition of the Sapir-Whorf kind, and so very much a triumph in (ancient Sinitic and contemporary Anglophonic) philosophy of language. What troubles me, the Yangist, though, is its inappropriate neglect of a most prominent Warring States figure's ideas in the mouthpiece of an eighteenth century apologist. We toil for the spoil, and Yangzi's exposition of such in his own history couple with his criticism that the means (collectivism) were perversely muddled with the ends (individual gratification) is scarcely met with yet another innatist "natural principle of benevolence in man, which is in some degree to society what self-love is to the individual," a non-argument when it's not a muddle.