January 30, 2011

Musing on the Pragmatic vs. Semantic Theories of Truth with Mozi

There was a very interesting post about truth that came a few days ago in Warp, Weft, and Way about Hansen's claims that the ancient Chinese thinkers did not use a semantic conception of truth, and that their evaluations for the truth of a claim were pragmatic rather than semantic.

Many people seem to agree on the latter claim. Chinese philosophers were very much more occupied with pragmatics over semantics. In my experience, it just goes with political science's and political philosophy's discourse. For them, truth of a "semantic" or objectively verified sort, is given only the consideration needed to implement a political plan, which is why you'll hear more about "cost-effectiveness" and other issues of expediency outmatching more permanent solutions that come at a significant, even if temporary, inconvenience. Hansen and I agree that the ancient Chinese care about semantic truth (as I qualify it below), or at least opted for true assertions over false ones, but that their arguments and discourse were not in defense a semantic sense of truth and falsehood, but on a pragmatic one.

I'll admit here that I (as a redundancy theorist) don't acknowledge "semantic" truth as a very coherent notion as it is normally discussed the rigors of formal semantics, but I'll entertain their difference as making a distinction between more "scientifically rigorously" true claims, versus pragmatically true (that is, expedient in fulfilling a stated goal).

The best reason that I know to give against the belief that the ancient Chinese philosophers clearly separated pragmatic and semantic theories of truth comes from Mozi. Mozi's work is very much a guided critique of the Confucians and the holes that they leave in their views due to a lack of rigor. Most importantly, the objective measures for a preferred or non-preferred action isn't directly stated in the 儒家 corpus of the time (though the 中庸 may be an effort at exactly that).

The issue with Mozi is that his decided semantic values, 是 and 非, which is the crux of Mohist consideration and consternation, are not easily derived into just plain-old Boolean values. 是非, even now, very much has a normative meaning, and these meanings are not qualified and separated in the Mohist canon, just as they are not so clearly done today (in Chinese-language logic books, 對 and 錯 are the most common natural-language stand-ins for Boolean values). We could take an extremely radical view on this, that Mozi equated or very closely correlated falsehood with evil, but the Mozi does not evidence such a stance.

Mozi's take on the fundaments of (the truth over the matter of) virtue (and the first instance of "是非") read very closely to Peirce's discussion on the methods of tenacity and authority in "A Fixation of Belief":
"古者民始生,未有刑政之時,蓋其語‘人異義’。是以一人則一義,二人則二義,十人則十義,其人茲眾,其所謂義者亦茲眾。是以人是其義,以非 人之義,故文相非也。是以內者父子兄弟作怨惡,離散不能相和合。天下之百姓,皆以水火毒藥相虧害,至有餘力不能以相勞,腐臭餘財不以相分,隱匿良道不以相教,天下之亂,若禽獸然。

"夫明虖天下之所以亂者,生於無政長。是故選天下之賢可者,立以為天子。天子立,以其力為未足,又選擇天 下之賢可者,置立之以為三公。天子三公既以立,以天下為博大,遠國異土之民,是非利害之辯,不可一二而明知,故畫分萬國,立諸侯國君,諸侯國君既已立,以 其力為未足,又選擇其國之賢可者,置立之以為正長。"

"In the beginning of human life, when there was yet no law and government, the custom was 'everybody according to his own idea.' Accordingly each man had his own idea, two men had two different ideas and ten men had ten different ideas -- the more people the more different notions. And everybody approved of his own view and disapproved the views of others, and so arose mutual disapproval among men. As a result, father and son and elder and younger brothers became enemies and were estranged from each other, since they were unable to reach any agreement. Everybody worked for the disadvantage of the others with water, fire, and poison. Surplus energy was not spent for mutual aid; surplus goods were allowed to rot without sharing; excellent teachings (Dao) were kept secret and not revealed. The disorder in the (human) world could be compared to that among birds and beasts.

"Yet all this disorder was due to the want of a ruler. Therefore (Heaven) chose the virtuous in the world and crowned him emperor. Feeling the insufficiency of his capacity, the emperor chose the virtuous in the world and installed them as the three ministers. Seeing the vastness of the empire and the difficulty of attending to matters of right and wrong and profit and harm among peoples of far countries, the three ministers divided the empire into feudal states and assigned them to feudal lords. Feeling the insufficiency of their capacity, the feudal lords, in turn, chose the virtuous of their states and appointed them as their officials."
-- Mozi, 3:1 (trans. W.P. Mei)
The parallel between Peirce and Mozi is uncanny; and like Peirce, Mozi is describing the evolution of brute individual opinion to brute authoritarian opinion as a natural process in the fixation of a certain value. The difference, of course, is that Mozi is obviously more occupied with the fixation of true claims about virtue, and Peirce is more occupied with the fixation of true claims about Mother Nature.

Speaking from a standpoint of schools, a counterexample (and outlier in philosophical thought) is the School of Names (名家), an offshoot school from the Mohists in which Gongsun Longzi is very much toying with semantic truth in his "paradoxes" (which are ancient Chinese syntactic foibles rather than actual paradoxes). These discussions do seriously attend to the semantic conception of truth, of the acceptance of belief in statements that are not ethically laden or distracted with secondary evaluations. That, alone, should refute the claim that the ancient Chinese didn't have or use a "semantic" theory of truth. There were a group of thinkers who were targeting sloppy language and deliberately forming absurd conclusions in order to consider the truth of a matter independently of other valuations which distract from an evaluation for soundness, alone.

It's not that Chinese philosophers didn't argue that statements should be rejected because they are false (How else are they to challenge each other about the nature of 天, or 命, or 德 and still be worth taking philosophically seriously?), but that they did so in a roundabout way. Pragmatic arguments argue that implementation of a supposed plan will or will not yield the consequences that the plan proposes to produce or that the plan produces or does not produce more strongly undesired consequences than desired ones. This, just as much as any "less pragmatic" argument, is still an argument about facts, just facts over a different domain. The more scientifically rigorous, semantic argument ignores one's desires (it is impartial, like Laozi's 天), but just considers the consequences on their own terms. This narrower sense of truth is of greater appeal because it covers pragmatic arguments, as well; and if the general argument in politics is, "Plan x will or will not increase the people's general well-being," a "semantic" argument becomes indistinguishable from a "pragmatic" one. They'll all be truth-apt arguments that can be assessed for their own validity and soundness (that is, confirmation by experience).

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