What is Chinese philosophy?

By Wai Wai Chiu.

Like the history of Western philosophy, Chinese thought is divided into different periods. The period which is usually labelled as the golden age of Chinese thought is the pre-Qin period. This is the period where the widest variety of schools prevailed. (Qin is the name of a dynasty in China around 221 B.C – 207 B.C. The pre-Qin period usually covers 770 B.C. – 221 B.C. Compare Socrates, who lived around 469 B.C. – 399 B.C., and Plato, who lived around 429 B.C. – 347 B.C.)

When we talk about a contrast or comparison between Chinese philosophy and Western philosophy, we do not mean that there is a singular, unified view in Chinese philosophy and a singular, unified view in Western philosophy. Rather, we point to some similarity among schools in China and some similarity among Western schools, and sketch the context and the topic in which they can be compared, noting that every similarity makes sense only under some conditions.

Very briefly, the primary concern of Chinese thought is self-cultivation in this world. This includes the transformation of one’s character, habit, disposition and other faculties. But it should be noted that different thinkers have different conceptions of what self-cultivation is and how we should carry it out. Most of them will agree, however, that problems in knowledge, politics and even reality cannot be considered as independent of self-cultivation. For example, in discussing politics, the government is supposed to be a model for ordinary people. The government should educate them, to help them engage in self-cultivation.

Western philosophy has a close relationship with mathematics, and later, with logic and physics. For example, Plato claims that his doctrine is prepared only for those who know geometry. And if this is the requirement for philosophical thinking, I guess many Chinese thinkers will be considered as not suitable or eligible for philosophy! From geometry, Plato thinks that philosophy should be freed from particulars, be static, clear and demonstrable. The construction of philosophy should resemble the Euclidean system. While in China, philosophy is more connected to history and literature. The founder of Confucianism, Confucius, emphasized the study of poetry and traditional propriety. Like literature, the spirit of philosophy lies in the transformation of one’s character and sentiments, and like history, philosophy is a continuous response to tradition (and the social environment shaped by tradition).

The emphasis in Western philosophy is on clear and precise concepts, definition, truth, and universality, an approach which favours deduction and the formulation of rules and principles. Some of these serve like axioms in mathematics, some of them as corollaries. To paraphrase Plato again, a philosopher is supposed to engage in pure thinking, to philosophize in a realm that is strictly governed by reason alone. Nowadays, justification still plays a supreme role in philosophy. And here, justification concerns constructing arguments from propositions.

For ancient Chinese thinkers, however, the faculty of reason is not singled out as the VIP in philosophy. Actually, in some schools there is not even a clear distinction between reason and sentiment. Whether a doctrine can be justified is often measured by the effect of the doctrine on one’s self-cultivation or social order. It is more important to see what can be inspired by a statement and what modification it brings to our practice than to clear it systematically in our mind. Therefore, the use of analogy and metaphor is very common, and Chinese thinkers often elaborate an idea by giving various examples (which is quite the opposite of Plato), relating its significance to the audience or sometimes telling a story. Also, Chinese thinkers have a stronger inclination to synthesize different theories, even those of opponents.

Greek philosophy puts much emphasis on the descriptive or representative function of language. Language is supposed to match reality, and each sentence points to a fact which is in some sense independent of human make-ups. Correspondence is a very important idea in Western philosophy of language. On the other hand, Chinese philosophy puts more emphasis on language’s prescriptive or orientative function. Language is primarily associated with guiding human interaction. Some thinkers think that each name prescribes certain actions. Correspondence is replaced by the effectiveness of the motivational power of language.

Most Western philosophical texts are written in Indo-European derived languages, while Chinese has had its own linguistic development. Translation to a foreign language, like English, is made difficult by the absence in ancient Chinese of articles, prefixes, suffixes, tenses, distinctions between singular and plural, and so on. This makes each character and each word in Chinese a cluster of meaning and an indeterminate reference sometimes fixed only temporarily by context. This feature may be a disturbance or a treasure -depending on how one thinks about language, meaning and the worldview behind each system of language.


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