Early Mohists and Logic

Presented at the History of Logic in China (HOLIC) 2014 conference.


The extant text of the Mozi can be divided into several sections separated by quite clear divisions in both writing style and content. Of these, one section of six texts – often termed the “dialectical chapters (墨辯)” – stands out as focusing directly upon abstract issues in ethics, science, and logic. These chapters are generally thought to be of relatively late authorship, and their contents attributed to so-called “later Mohists”. By contrast, many of the core doctrines of Mohism itself are expounded in groups of essays that are likely of earlier authorship, often referred to as the “ten triads” or “core chapters”.

The later Mohist works include content that can be easily recognized as logical in character or as having clear logical significance, such as definitions of logical operators and discussions revolving around the correctness of groups of formally parallel linguistic expressions. While the earlier Mohist works by contrast do not contain such immediately obvious examples of logical theorizing, they are nonetheless of considerable utility in understanding Mohist logical thought as a whole: though diverging radically in content and style, the earlier and later works exhibit continuity regarding certain key ideas and interests. Crucially, in comparison to the notoriously terse, technical, and at times obscure writing style employed in many parts of the later Mohist works – which are in addition plagued by serious textual corruption and as a consequence often the subject of widespread scholarly disagreement regarding textual emendations and literal interpretation – the early Mohist works are written in a verbose and often repetitive style that is generally much less problematic to interpret. As a result, early Mohist writings may provide invaluable evidence about mainstream Mohist ideas and concepts that can usefully inform the interpretation of later Mohist logic, as well as suggest how the Mohists themselves may have come to develop and understand key ideas that we now identify as “logical”.

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