Meaning Without “Truth”

Hansen, Daoist theory of human thoughtA Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation

By Chad Hansen

New York: Oxford University Press. (2000)

Chad Hansen claims he’s going to shake up traditional views on Chinese thought (even modern ones such as A.C. Graham and B.I. Schwartz).  Well, I’m not sure if he succeeded in that, and I found both Graham and Schwartz more accessible and clearer in their surveys of classical Chinese thinking.

Nevertheless, Hansen’s work was well worth the effort.  What I found most valuable is his approach to the linkage of thought and language.  Hansen takes a strong Whorfian approach (one which I agree with) in proposing that Chinese thought, as expressed in the underlying structures of their language, is different from Western thought in some fundamental ways.  For example, Greek and Indian (and all other Proto-Indo European sourced languages) “depend on the semantic concepts of meaning and truth.”  Chinese language and thought, on the other hand, are more relational.  Hansen makes an interesting contrast of Western and Chinese dictionary traditions.  In Western language, we “assume the notion of a meaning that the definition should express.  The Chinese dictionary tradition is more historical.  It collects different historical examples of use and lists possible character (or phrase) substitutes in each use.”

One of my central themes is that Western thought traditions emphasize what I call “conceptual consciousness” (pfc-dominated thought) over “animate consciousness”.  Hansen gives a great example of this thesis, when he explains how in Chinese, meaning is partly a function of tone.  In the West, we make a separation between the substance of what we say, and the tone in which we say it.  The substance is a function of the “objective truth” of the statement.  The tone… well, that’s the emotional, touchy-feely stuff of affect.  In Chinese, by contrast, there was never as clear a separation between conceptual and animate consciousness.  They were more integrated from the outset, and that shows itself in their inclination to incorporate tone into meaning.

Hansen gives a detailed descriptions of Mencius’ view of human nature expressed in a full-fledged plant analogy.  This is something important to me, and I’m grateful to him for his detail.  I believe that Mencius’ view of an organically growing human morality, linking the individual with the cosmos, offers a great deal to anyone trying to construct a global ethic for the 21st century, and also ties in closely with some aspects of modern evolutionary psychology, such as theories of “parochial altruism”.  In following up some of Hansen’s bibliography citations, I discovered a book put out in 2005 by Donald Munro, A Chinese Ethic for the New Century, which I’ll be really interested to follow up.

I’d recommend Hansen to people who have already read Schwartz’s The World of Thought in Ancient China and Graham’s Disputers of the Tao, and who want to add another linguistic-oriented perspective to their understanding.


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