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Taoism Logic And Language In Ancient China: Resources From Contemporary Studies


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
by Raul Corazzon -

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Logic and Language in Ancient China

A survey of Contemporary Studies


"Technically, classical China had semantic theory but no logic. Western historians, confusing logic and theory of language, used the term 'logicians' to describe those philosophers whom the Chinese called the 'name school'. The best known of these were Hui Shi (380-305 b. C.) and Gongsun Lung (b. 380 b. C.?). This group now also includes the Later Mohists and the term 'distinction school' (translated as 'dialecticians') has become common.

The importance of the more detailed Mohist work came to light in modern times. The Confucian tradition had lost access to it. Rescuing that text rekindled a long-lost interest in Chinese theories of language. The restored Mohist texts give us a general theory of how words work. A term picks out part of reality. Some terms are more general than others; terms like 'dobbin' or 'horse' or 'object' might pick out the same thing. When we use a term to pick something out, we commit ourselves to using the name to pick out similar things and 'stopping' with the dissimilar. Thus, for each term we learn an 'is this' and an 'is not'. 'Is not' generates an opposite for each name and marks the point of distinction or discrimination.

Chinese doctrine portrays disagreements as arising from different ways of making the distinctions that give rise to opposites. The word bian (distinction/dispute) thus came to stand for a philosophical dispute. The Mohists argued that, in a 'distinction/dispute', one party will always be right. For any descriptive term, the thing in question will either be an 'is this' or an 'is not'. Mohists were realistic about descriptions and the world.

Real similarities and differences underlie our language. They rejected the claim that words distort reality; to regard all language as 'perverse', they noted, was 'perverse'. The Mohists failed, however, to give a good account of what similarities and differences should count in making a distinction.

Mohists also found that combining terms was semantically fickle. In the simplest case, the compound picked out the sum of what the individual terms did. Classical Chinese lacked pluralization so 'cat-dog' works like 'cats and dogs'. Other compound terms (such as 'white horse') worked as they do in English. The confusion led Gongsun Long to argue, on Confucian grounds, that we could say 'white horse is not horse'."

From: Chad Hansen - Logic in China - in: Edward Craig (ed.) - Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy - London, New York: Routledge 1998 pp. 694-695.

"Systematic argument in Chinese philosophy began with the Moist school, founded in the fifth century b. C. by the first anti-Confucian thinker Mo Tzu (c. 468 - c. 376 b. C.). He laid down three tests for the validity of a doctrine: ancient authority, common observation, and practical effect. At first the controversies of the various schools over moral and political principles led to increasing rigor in argument; then to an interest in dialectic for its own sake, as evidenced in Hui Shih's paradoxes of infinity and in Kung-sun Lung's sophism "A (white) horse is not a horse"; and still later to the antirationalism of the Taoist Chuang Tzu (born c. 369 B.C.), who rejected all dialectic on the grounds that names have only an arbitrary connection with objects and that any point of view is right for those who accept the choice of names it assumes.

Logic of Mohism. In the third century b.C. the Mohists responded to Chuang Tzu's skepticism by systematizing dialectic in the "Moist Canons" and the slightly later Ta-ch'ü and Hsiao-ch'ü.

Moist Canons. The "Canons" confined dialectic to questions of the form "Is it this or is it not?" or, since they assumed that the proposition is merely a complex name for a complex object, "Is it or is it not the case that . . . ?" (The form is distinguished in Chinese by a verbless sentence with a final particle, not by a verb "to be.") In true dialectic the alternatives are paired ("Is it an ox or not?") so that one and only one fits the object. Dialectic excludes such questions as "Is it an ox or a horse?" (it may be neither) and "Is it a puppy or a dog?" (it may be both). Its solutions are absolutely right or wrong; being or not being "this," unlike being long or short, is not a matter of degree, since nothing is more "this" than this is. The Mohists further argued that it is self-contradictory to deny or to affirm all propositions: the statement "All statements are mistaken" implies that it is itself mistaken, and one cannot "reject rejection" without refusing to reject one's own rejection.

Names are of, three types, distinguished by their relations to "objects," which are assumed to be particular. "Unrestricted" names (such as "thing") apply to every object. Names "of kinds" (such as "horse") apply to every object resembling the one in question. "Private" names (for example, the proper name "Tsang") apply to one object. Whether a name fits an object is decided by appeal to a "standard." There may be more than one standard for an object; for "circle" the standard may be a circle, one's mental picture of a circle, or a compass. Some standards fit without qualification: a circle has no straight lines. Some fit only partially: in deciding whether someone is a "black man" it is not enough to point out his black eyes and hair. The "Canons" began with 75 definitions, evidently offered as "standards," of moral, psychological, geometrical, and occasionally logical terms. An example of a definition of a logical term is "'All' is 'none not so' " (supplemented in the Hsiao-ch'ü by " 'Some' is 'not all' "). The first of the series is "The 'cause' is what is required for something to happen." ("Minor cause: with this it will not necessarily be so; without this it necessarily will not be so. Major cause: with this it will necessarily be so.") The "Canons" also distinguish the senses of 12 ambiguous terms. Thus, "same" is (1) identical ("two names for one object"), (2) belonging to one body, (3) together, and (4) of a kind ("the same in some respects").

"Ta-ch'ü" and "Hsiao-ch'ü." The Moist Ta-ch'ü further refined the classification of names. Names indicating "number and measure" cease to apply when their objects are reduced in size; when a white stone is broken up it ceases to be "big," although it is still "white." Names indicating "residence and migration" do not apply when the population moves, as in the case of names of particular states ("Ch'i") or of kinds of administrative divisions ("country"). The claim that one knows X only if one knows that an object is X applies only to names indicating "shape and appearance" ("mountain," but not "Ch'i" or "county").

The Ta-ch'ü, and still more the Hsiao-ch'ü, also showed a shift of interest from the name to the sentence and to the deduction of one sentence from another. The Chinese never analyzed deductive forms, but the Mohists noticed that the formal parallelism of sentences does not necessarily entitle us to infer from one in the same way as from another, and they developed a procedure for testing parallelism by the addition or substitution of words. For example, "Asking about a man's illness is asking about the man," but "Disliking the man's illness is not disliking the man"; "The ghost of a man is not a man," but "The ghost of my brother is my brother." In order to reconcile the execution of robbers with love for all men some Mohists maintained that although a robber is a man, "killing robbers is not killing men." Enemies of Mohism rejected this as sophistry, on the assumption that one can argue from "A robber is a man" to "Killing robbers is killing men," just as one can argue from "A white horse is a horse" to "Riding white horses is riding horses." The Hsiao-ch'ü replied that there are second and third sentence types of the same form, which do not allow such an inference-for example, "Her brother is a handsome man," but "Loving her brother is not loving a handsome man"; "{censored}fights are not {censored}s," but "Having a taste for {censored}fights is having a taste for {censored}s." A four-stage procedure was used to establish that "A robber is a man" belongs to the second type:(1) Illustrating the topic ("robber") with things ("brother," "boat") of which formally similar statements may be made.

(2) Matching parallel sentences about the illustrations and the topic-for instance, "Her brother is a handsome man, but loving her brother is not loving a handsome man"; "A boat is wood, but entering a boat is not entering [piercing?] wood"; "A robber is a man, but abounding in robbers is not abounding in men, nor is being without robbers being without men."(3) Adducing supporting arguments for the last and most relevant parallels by expanding them and showing that the parallelism still holds: "Disliking the abundance of robbers is not disliking the abundance of men; wishing to be without robbers is not wishing to be without men."(4) Inferring, defined as "using its [the topic's] similarity to what he [the person being argued with] accepts in order to propose what he does not accept": "Although a robber is a man, loving robbers is not loving men, not loving robbers is not loving men, and killing robbers is not killing men."

From: Angus C. Graham - Chinese logic - (Third section of: Logic, History of) in: Paul Edwards (ed.) - The Encyclopedia of Philosophy - New York: Macmillan 1967. Vol. IV pp. 523-524.


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    "This is a new attempt at an analysis of classical Chinese (Confucian) ethics which is still inappropriately explained by Western philosophy as a traditional normative ethical system. Special conditions of ancient Chinese anthropogeny, and social and economic development gave rise in this cultural region to an original theory of being, which in modern terminology can be referred to as an ontological model of a fundamental Yin-Yang dialectic of a bipolar and nonhomogeneous synergy of being. This theory of being became a cornerstone for the whole complex of ancient Chinese philosophy, socio-anthropology and ethics."
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  15. Cheng Chung-ying, "Remarks on ontological and trans-ontological foundations of language," Journal of Chinese Philosophy 5: 335-340 (1978).
    "In these remarks I explore the possibility of ontological scopes of languages. I suggest that even though the trans-ontological language is the totality of the languages of beings, one must descend from this trans-ontological language to the languages of "things." The authentic whole reality of Tao is only reflected in the unity of the trans-ontological language with the intra-ontological languages of things."
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    "This is an up-to-date analysis of Kung-sun Lung's thesis "White horse is not horse" and the underlying class logic. Critique is made of the wrong-headedness of the mass-term interpretation (Hansen) and a shallow understanding of classical Chinese grammar in light of modern logic. Neo-mohist canons on identity, difference, separableness and inseparableness are also analyzed for comparison and contrast."
  17. Cheng Chung-ying, "Logic and language in Chinese philosophy," Journal of Chinese Philosophy 14: 285-307 (1987).
    "This is an inquiry into types of philosophical positions on logic as reflected in the implicit and explicit understanding of language and logic in classical Chinese philosophy."
  18. Cheng Chung-ying, ""Li" and "Ch'i" in the "I Ching": reconsideration of being and non-being in Chinese philosophy," Journal of Chinese Philosophy 14: 1-38 (1987).
    "This is a first attempt ever made to make explicit an underlying Li-Ch'i metaphysics in the texts and symbols of the I Ching. "
  19. Cheng Chung-ying, "Philosophical significance of Gongsun Long: a new interpretation of theory of "Zhi" as meaning and reference," Journal of Chinese Philosophy 24: 139-177 (1997).
    "In this article I consider the complete writings of Gongsun Long as included in the present day book named "Gongsun Long" I make a critical examinations of all Gongsun Long's arguments and come to a new interpretation of his theory of "Zhi" as meaning and reference in light of contemporary philosophy of logic and language. This study goes far beyond any earlier works on Gongsun Long."
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  25. Chmielewski Janusz, "Notes on early Chinese logic. Part V," Rocznik Orientalistyczny 29 (2): 117-138 (1965)
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  27. Chmielewski Janusz, "Notes on early Chinese logic. Part VII," Rocznik Orientalistyczny 31 (1): 117-136 (1968)
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    "A theory of analogic reasoning is established in which concepts are equated with boolean algebras and analogies with homomorphisms. The functional equivalence of analogic reasoning thus defined to propositional logic is shown. Chinese philosophers of the late Chou are shown to have been well acquainted with the rules governing the rigorous use of analogic reasoning."
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    "A. C. Graham's Later Mohist Logic, Ethics, and Sciences (1978) is the only Western-language translation of the obscure and textually corrupt chapters of the Mozi that purportedly constitute the foundations of ancient Chinese logic. Graham's presentation and interpretation of this difficult material has been largely accepted by scholars. This article questions the soundness of Graham's reconstruction of these chapters (the so-called "Neo-Mohist Canons"). Upon close examination, problems are revealed in both the structure and the content of the framework Graham uses to interpret the Canons. Without a more reliable framework for interpreting the text, it seems best to remain skeptical about claims that the Canons represent evidence for the study of logic in early China."
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    With a new introduction and supplementary bibliography by Christopher Fraser
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    "It is argued that the three genuine remains of the Chinese sophist Kung-sun Lung (c. 300 b. C.), the "White horse," "Pointing things out" and the "Left and right" dialogue, can for the first time be read as consecutive and coherent when understood in terms, not of class and member, but of whole and part."
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    "Flew observes that analytic philosophy (a concern with words and language) seems to have no root in Chinese tradition. I suggest it "seems" that way because (a) Chinese philosophers focused on pragmatics rather than semantics; and (b) orthodox interpretations downplay Chinese linguistic theory and could not read the crucial analytic texts until recently. I describe the pragmatic theory of language in those texts and suggest how they enhance our understanding of classical Chinese philosophy."
  40. Hansen Chad, "Ancient Chinese theories of language," Journal of Chinese Philosophy 2: 245-283 (1975).
    "Four presupposed philosophical attitudes toward language are taken to characterize the major Schools of the pre-Han period. These are: 1) emotivism, 2) distinction marking -- the view that language and names, in their descriptive function, divide reality (or the Tao) into parts roughly analogous to distributive individuals, 3) conventionalism, and 4) behavioral nominalism -- that most or all "ordinary" thinking consists of entertaining names or strings of names (sentences). No clear reference to abstract ideas, classes, senses, platonic universals, etc., is found in this period nor is any necessary in understanding and interpreting the major thinkers of the period."
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    "The most famous paradox in Chinese philosophy, Kung-sun Lung's "White horse not horse" has been taken as evidence of Platonism, Aristotelian essentialism, class logic, etc., in ancient Chinese thought. I argue that a nominalistic interpretation utilizing the notion of "stuffs" (mass objects) is a more plausible explanation of the dialogue. It is more coherent internally, more consistent with Kung-sun Lung's other dialogues, and the tradition of Chinese thought which is usually regarded as nominalistic. The interpretation is also strongly suggested by striking parallels between all Chinese classificatory nouns and English mass nouns."
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    "The translation and interpretation of the (pre-Han philosophic essay) "Chih Wu Lun" offered by Richard Swain and Cheng Chung-ying is criticized and two serious errors displayed. First, it is shown that their formalization of the essay is logically inconsistent and that a rectification of this defect fails to preserve the logical structure perceived by the authors. Secondly, the English translation is criticized, attention being drawn to a reversal of "implicans" and "implicandum", concluding that on these two formal grounds alone, the author's enterprise wants rethinking."
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    "Instead of the classical two truths theory of Nagarjuna, Chinese Buddhists came up with three truths: reality as real, as empty and as both (i.e., middle). The essay, one in a series, traces the origin to Chou Yung's essay on three Schools (of two truths). There, Chou set up a School that failed to negate provisional reality (the real-ist), the School that succeeded (the empty-ist), the School that realized the real as the empty (the middle-ist). All later theorists, Chih-tsang, Chi-tsang and Chih-i were indebted to this essay painstakingly reconstructed here."
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    "I show that Chu Hsi takes "chih-chich" (extension of knowledge), and "ko-wu" (investigations of things) to be means of discovering moral knowledge. But Wang Yang-ming's "chih-chih" and "ko-wu" are not means to discover moral knowledge, but rather ways of putting knowledge into practice. I argue that the interpretations of Wang Yang-ming by Wing-tsit Chan and Julia Ching confuse Wang's system with Chu Hsi's."
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    "Semantical instruments of contemporary logic are applied to the analysis of Hui Shih's "Ten propositions" and Kung Sun Lung's discourses "On the white horse", "On hard and white", "On indices and things". The notion of logical interpretation is used to clarify the structure of Hui Shih's argument; coupled with the notion of sorted language, it also allows us to show the logical coherence and common structure of Kung Sun Lung's three discourses."
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    "In this paper the author advances the thesis that by the late Third century b.C., discussions of the name and actuality/object, iming-shid , relationship by classical Chinese thinkers evidence a shift from nominalist theories of naming to essentialist theories of naming. According to the former, it is man who arbitrarily or conventionally determines which imingd should be applied to which ishid . According to the latter, there is a proper or correct correspondence between a given imingd and a given ishid , determined, variously, by what is ordained by 'heaven' or by what is 'naturally so'/'so of itself' ( izirand )."
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    "I present an analysis of the ideographic nature and semantic structure of the hexagrams of the "Yijing" ("the book of changes") from the perspective of the philosophy of language. My purpose is twofold: first, i take this as a good case for analysis leading to an understanding of the ideographic semantic structure of an ideographic language like Chinese; second, I take this understanding as a significant aspect in comprehending the "Yijing" philosophy. In the paper, I first examine the ideographic construction of the hexagrams, then suggest an interpretation of the triple ideographic semantic structure, and finally discuss the denotational meaning of the hexagrams in terms of a collective-noun hypothesis."
  63. Mou Bo, "The structure of the Chinese language and ontological insights: a collective-noun hypothesis," Philosophy East and West 49 (1): 45-62 (1999).
    "Through a comparative case analysis regarding the Chinese language, it is discussed how the structure and functions of a natural language would bear upon the ways in which some philosophical problems are posed and some ontological insights shaped. Disagreeing with Chad Hansen's mass-noun hypothesis, a collective-noun hypothesis is argued for: (1) the denotational semantics and relevant grammatical features of Chinese nouns are like those of collective nouns; (2) their implicit ontology is a mereological ontology of collection-of-individuals with both part-whole and member-class structure; and (3) encouraged and shaped by the folk semantics of Chinese nouns, classical Chinese theorists of language take this kind of mereological nominalism for granted."
  64. Reding Jean-Paul, "Greek and Chinese categories: a reexamination of the problem of linguistic relativism," Philosophy East and West 36: 349-374 (1986).
    Reprinted in: J. P. Reding - Comparative essays in early Greek and Chinese rational thinking , Aldershot, Ashgate, 2004, pp. 65-92
  65. Reding Jean-Paul and Reding, "Gongsun Long on what is not: steps towards the deciphering of the Zhiwulun ," Philosophy East and West 52 (2): 190-206 (2002).
    "The Zhiwulun, chapter 3 of the Gongsunlongzi, attributed to the Sophist Gongsun Long (third century B.c.), is generally interpreted as a theoretical treatise on the relations between words and things. A new reading proceeds from the hypothesis that the Zhiwulun, like the White Horse Treatise, is another logical puzzle. Its theme is the problem of pointing out things that do not exist in the world or, put in modern terms, the problem of negative existentials. The Zhiwulun is a dilemma whose purpose is to show that the pointing that points at things that do not exist points without pointing."
  66. Reding Jean-Paul. Comparative essays in early Greek and Chinese rational thinking. Aldershot: Ashgate 2004
  67. Rieman Fred, "Kung-Sun Lung, designated things and logic," Philosophy East and West 30: 305-319 (1980)
  68. Rieman Fred, "Kung-sun, White Horses and Logic," Philosophy East and West 31 (4): 415-447 (1981)
  69. Rosemont Henry, "On representing abstractions in Archaic Chinese," Philosophy East and West 24 (1): 71-88 (1974).
    "Some evidence and arguments are offered to show that the archaic (classical) Chinese language served as a linguistic vehicle largely because of the pictographic qualities of the characters rather than its being basically a transcription of speech. If natural languages are equated with spoken languages, it follows that classical Chinese is not a natural language. Some implications of this conclusion are then considered: 1) classical Chinese cannot be used as a counterexample to any transformationalist claims about the existence of significant linguistic universals. 2) Chinese philosophers were not hindered in their thought by their language; on the contrary, they were probably twice blessed in having two distinct media by which to convey their views (spoken and written). 3) the structure of classical Chinese suggests the importance of entailment logic for the Chinese, rather than propositional or predicate logic. 4) Wittgenstein's view that we must remain silent in the face of what cannot be said requires a Confucian footnote: perhaps the unsayable can be written in classical Chinese."
  70. Rosemont Henry, "Remarks on the quasi-syllogism," Philosophy East and West 42 (1): 31-35 (1992)
  71. Shien Gi-Ming, "Nothingness in the philosophy of Lao-Tzu," Philosophy East and West 1 (3): 58-63 (1951)
  72. Shien Gi-Ming, "Being and nothingness in Greek and ancient Chinese philosophy," Philosophy East and West 1 (2): 16-24 (1961)
  73. Steinkraus Warren E., "Socrates, Confucius, and the rectification of names," Philosophy East and West 30 (2): 261-264 (1980)
  74. Sun Siao-Fang, "Chuang-Tzu's theory of truth," Philosophy East and West 3 (2): 137-146 (1963)
  75. Thompson Kirill Ole, "When a "White Horse" Is not a "Horse*," Philosophy East and West 45 (4): 481-499 (1995).
    "Is the White Horse Paradox just a sleight of hand, or is it indicative of some truths about words, language, and logic? The paradox underscores some differences in the significance and implications of terms when considered in the context of mention rather than use. Moreover, the paradox shows that insights into how words and phrases operate in language can be gained by considering them in the context of mention. The paradox also causes us to think of the instrumental value of words, as opposed to thinking of their roles just in referring and in judgments and inferences."
  76. Trauzettel Rolf, "A sophism by the ancient philosopher Gongsun Long: jest, satire, irony--or is there a deeper significance?," Journal of Chinese Philosophy 26: 21-35 (1999)
  77. Tu Wei-ming, "Subjectivity and ontological reality. An interpretation of Wang Yang-ming's mode of thinking," Philosophy East and West 23 (1-2): 187-205 (1973)
  78. Van der Leeuw Karel, "The study of Chinese philosophy in the West: a bibliographic introduction," China Review International 6 (2): 332-372 (1999)
  79. Vierheller Ernst Joachim, "Object language and meta-language in the Gongsun Long Zi," Journal of Chinese Philosophy 20: 181-209 (1993).
    "The Gongsun Long Zi is a text of the ancient Chinese School of Logicians. An attempt is made to provide a coherent interpretation of the logical content of the chapter "bBi ma lun". The analysis based on a new look on the logical function of the negated copula "Fei" yields a reading of the text as being directed toward elucidating the distinction of meta-/object-language and of extension/intension of a concept. This fact could enhance the appreciation of the level of language analysis reached at an early premodern state of Chinese philosophy. "
  80. Wardy Robert. Aristotle in China. Language, categories and translation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2000
  81. Wei-Ming Tu, "Neo-Confucian ontology: a preliminary questioning," Journal of Chinese Philosophy 7: 93-114 (1980)
  82. Wu Joseph S., "Chinese language and Chinese thought," Philosophy East and West 19 (4): 423-434 (1969).
    "The main task of this paper is an exposition of some subtle common traits of Chinese thought through an examination of some major characteristics of the Chinese language. First, the author presents the main structures of the Chinese written characters and some notable syntactical features of the classical Chinese. Second, he exposes some essential characteristics of Chinese thinking as revealed by the nature of the language. In the conclusion, he justifies the thesis that the Chinese language is a language for poetry."
  83. Wu Kuang-Ming, "Counterfactuals, universals and Chinese thinking," Philosophy East and West 37: 84-94 (1987)
  84. Yasuo Yausa, "Image-thinking and the understanding of "Being": the psychological basis of linguistic expression," Philosophy East and West 55 (2): 179-208 (2005).
    Translated by Shigenori Nagatomo and Jacques Fasan.
    "This essay investigates why and how East Asian thought, particularly Chinese thought, has traditionally developed differently from that of Western philosophy by examining the linguistic differences discerned in the Chinese language and Western languages. To accomplish the task, it focuses on the understanding of "being" that relates to the theoretical thinking of the West and the image-thinking of East-Asia, while providing a psychological basis for the latter."
  85. Yuan Jinmei, ""Kinds, Lei" in ancient Chinese logic: a comparison to "Categories" in Aristotelian logic," History of Philosophy Quarterly 22: 181-199 (2005)
  86. Yuan Jinmei, "The role of time in the structure of Chinese logic," Philosophy East and West 56: 136-152 (2006)
  87. Zhenbin Sun, "Yan: a dimension of praxis and its philosophical implications (a Chinese perspective on language)," Journal of Chinese Philosophy 24: 191-208 (1997)
  88. Zong Desheng, "Studies of intensional contexts in Mohist writings," Philosophy East and West 50 (2): 208-228 (2000).
    "The Mohist School's logical study focuses mainly on the following inference rule: suppose that N and M are coextensive terms, or N a subset of M; it follows that if a verb can appear in front of N, it can also appear in front of M. That is, if 'VM' then 'VN', where V is some extensional verb. Such an approach to logical inference necessitates the study of logical relations among nouns, verbs, and the relations between these two types of words. Evidence is offered here that the Mohists clearly distinguished extensional verbs from intensional verbs, and that this insight enabled them to say, among other things, that VN does not follow from VM, even in cases where N is M or contained in M, as long as the V in question is an intensional verb."

International Society for Chinese Philosophy
Journal of Chinese Philosophy - A selection of full text articles (from vol. 1, 1973 to vol. 29, 2002)
Essential Readings on Chinese Philosophy by Bryan W. Van Norden
Chad Hansen's Chinese Philosophy Pages

Source: Logic and Language in Ancient China

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