Knowledge and Language in Early Chinese Thought

An invited lecture given at the Taiwan Philosophical Association at Taiwan University.


Early Chinese thinkers did not typically characterize knowledge in terms of sentential constructs nor consider these to be a fundamental constituent or theoretical foundation of knowledge. At the same time, relationships between language and knowledge were the subject of intense critical debate, in which thinkers recognized the possibility of such relations existing and the significance should they hold, but were in each case challenged by those skeptical of their generality. This paper will discuss early explorations of the relation between language and knowledge and attempt to explain why some Chinese thinkers came to be skeptical of the role that language might play in understanding and obtaining knowledge.

I shall begin by arguing that in classical Chinese there is an important linguistic disanalogy between knowledge, truth, and belief that would weigh strongly against attempting to account for knowledge in terms of sentential constructs. Instead, knowing was more typically thought of as consisting in objectively correct action and the correct use of words. Secondly, while those with a positive view of the role of language in explaining knowledge attempted to show that there are objective standards that govern the correct use of words, they found it difficult to fully account for the claimed objectivity and uniqueness of these standards. Thirdly, though early thinkers looked for strictly formal regularities in language, in doing so they made the discovery that language does not in fact follow such formal patterns. Finally, Daoists in particular suggested that words can be intentionally used in unconventional ways that force them to take on new and seemingly incompatible interpretations in different contexts, suggesting that words may not be used in accordance with any fixed objective standards at all.

This entry was posted in Chinese, Philosophy, Talks and conference papers. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.