Abstract Theorizing and Language – Hall and Ames (and a bit of Hansen)
I’m working on a couple of papers related to language and ethics in early China. One of the issues that keeps coming up are the arguments, from two distinct directions, that the language of early China points to a tendency to avoid abstract thought, including abstract ethical thought. One argument comes from Chad Hansen’s lengthy mass-noun, stuff-ontology, mereology thesis. The other comes from Roger Ames and David Hall’s somewhat quick argument about the relatively “infrequent resort” to counterfactual conditionals in Chinese philosophy.
In this post, I’ll just say a quick thing about Hansen. In terms of “abstract” theorizing, Hansen’s view seems to have two (related) conclusions based on his argument that early Chinese think of the world in terms of intermixed “stuff” rather than individuals and their properties:
- (H1) universals, or properties, and things are not components of early Chinese thinking; and
- (H2) the mind (or in this case, the xin 心, “heart-mind”) is not conceived of as engaged in representations of the world (in a “mentalese language of thought”), but rather in acts of discrimination regarding the parts and (mass) wholes among which humans navigate.
In those pretty specific senses, Hansen thinks there is no abstract theorizing in early China. At least that’s my quick summary (read both of Hansen’s books, Language and Logic in Ancient China and A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought, to check).
Ames and Hall’s view is less systematic and perhaps based on (someone else’s) bad linguistic research, but there may be arguments for their view that transcend that research. I’ll try to summarize their position, from Thinking Through Confucius, and make a call for some examples that might be interesting to discuss as prima facie counterexamples.
Ames and Hall argue that the Confucian sensibility–and more broadly, all of Classical Chinese thought–is shaped by a lack of “consideration of the differential consequences of alternative possibilities” which “underlies the dominant modes of ethical and scientific thinking” (265). The argument is based in part on Alfred Bloom’s 1981 study, The Linguistic Shaping of Thought: A Study in the Impact of Language and Thinking in China and the West. By way of “cheating,” I’ll paste the opening page of Wu Kuang-ming’s Philosophy East and West (37:1) book review as summary of Bloom’s research and to indicate the direction of argument that Wu takes against Bloom’s thesis:
“In this provocative book, Alfred Bloom claims that the Chinese language does
not have a counterfactual formulation, and therefore Chinese people have
difficulty understanding counterfactual expressions. He said this is because
counterfactuals depend on the ability to turn properties and actions into nouns,
lift them up (abstract them) from actuality, and fit them into a new theoretical
framework of universals. Thus in denying counterfactuals in Chinese language,
Bloom also denies universals in Chinese language. Since language allegedly
shapes thinking, the double denial of counterfactuality and universals amounts
to denying both in Chinese thinking. Since argumentation needs both counter-
factuals and universals, Chinese people are either poor arguers or incapable of
argumentation. This is a serious thesis indeed.
To prove the Chinese lack of counterfactuals, Bloom produced (1) a lack of
counterfactuals in contemporary Chinese writings and conversation, and (2)
poor scores on the tests on counterfactuals taken by Chinese people. To prove
the Chinese lack of theoretical abstraction and “entification,” Bloom produced
(3) poor scores on the tests on abstract thinking taken by Chinese people, and
(4) evidence of the difficulty of translating a single complex English sentence
into a single Chinese sentence. And to clinch the whole matter, Bloom reported
that (5) Chinese people themselves confessed to him that they have difficulty
grasping counterfactuals and universals, saying in effect that Chinese language
This review claims that perhaps the situation is more complex than Bloom
would have us believe. Both counterfactuals and universals are needed in think-
ing. What is peculiar about both English and Chinese languages is that they have
their own peculiar ways of expressing these concepts. In other words, counter-
factual thinking must be distinguished from counterfactual formulations in a
specific language; similarly, universals must be distinguished from theoretical
abstract terms, which are a peculiar linguistic form. A lack in the linguistic
formulations of counterfactuals and theoreticals does not necessarily show the
lack of counterfactual thinking and thinking on universals.
The Chinese language has no tense forms, but the Chinese people are one of
the most history-conscious races in the world. The Chinese language has no
gender forms, yet some gender distinction is clearly embedded throughout in
names, adjectives, expressions, and so on, as in English. The fact that Chinese
language lacks linguistic devices for plurality did not prevent the Chinese people
from being good businessmen or engineers….”
In addition to Wu, there have been others critical of Bloom’s thesis (for example, Christoph Harbsmeier in Language and Logic, no. VII:1 in Science and Civilization in China, 116-18).
Ames and Hall admit that though Bloom’s thesis that there is no counterfactual locution in the Chinese language, including Classical Chinese, might be overstated, the “infrequent resort to such locutions in Chinese philosophic argument” (364, note 29) is what matters to their conclusions. So what are the relevant conclusions here? A good and fair summary, I think, lies in this quote:
“If ethics is to be considered always in the light of reflection, deliberation, and conscious judgment among alternatives, then one may certainly assent to the view that such ethical interests are not in any important way represented in classical Chinese philosophy.” (266)
So, two issues:
- How valid is the reasoning from the relative lack of counterfactual locutions to this conclusion?
- Regardless of counterfactuals, does the conclusion ring true? Why or why not?
We could start, I suppose, by discussing the nature and role of an apparent counterexemple: Mencius’s use of the “child in the well” example (from 2A:6, text and Legge’s translation–from Donald Sturgeon’s site):
“When I say that all men have a mind which cannot bear to see the sufferings of others, my meaning may be illustrated thus: even now-a-days, if men suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, they will without exception experience a feeling of alarm and distress. They will feel so, not as a ground on which they may gain the favour of the child’s parents, nor as a ground on which they may seek the praise of their neighbours and friends, nor from a dislike to the reputation of having been unmoved by such a thing. From this case we may perceive that the feeling of commiseration is essential to man, that the feeling of shame and dislike is essential to man, that the feeling of modesty and complaisance is essential to man, and that the feeling of approving and disapproving is essential to man.”
Does this really count as a counterexample–is it really counterfactual thinking and/or does it engage “reflection, deliberation, and conscious judgment among alternatives”? Are there other, better textual examples to discuss here?