Knowledge in Early Chinese Thought

The final version of my PhD thesis, titled Knowledge in Early Chinese Thought, is now available online.


Early Chinese philosophical texts contain discussions of the nature, origins, and possibility of knowledge, in which both positive accounts and skeptical responses to them are couched in importantly different terms to those most familiar from similar discussions in Western philosophy. In place of appeals to truth, belief, and fallibility of the senses, action, discrimination, and difference of perspective play crucial roles. The aim of this dissertation is to explain why this should be so, and what consequences this had for the early Chinese understanding of knowledge.

In an attempt to answer these questions, I argue that, likely influenced by both facts about the classical Chinese language and key philosophical trends and interests of the time, discussions of knowledge by early Chinese thinkers generally referenced a broad notion of knowledge that was seen as being closely related to action. Linguistic factors also contributed to theorizing about knowledge focusing not on beliefs or other sentential structures, but rather on the drawing of action-guiding shi-fei distinctions, and the same shi-fei framework that was applied to perception was also applied to knowledge.

Language, understood most fundamentally in terms of an ability to distinguish shi-fei and apply names to things in the correct way, also played an important role in the pre‐Qin understanding of knowledge. On a linguistic level, knowledge corresponded to reliably correct language use, and rigid fa (法 standards, models) were seen as underwriting this by providing the standard of correctness. Just as these fa could be used to measure the correctness of individual terms, thinkers interested in the correctness of doctrines and speech in general attempted to apply the same idea to larger linguistic structures such as sentences, in the hope of finding fa for correct language use at a higher level. In doing so, they discovered facts about natural language use that could not be accounted for using the types of fa they considered.

Likely in part influenced by similar observations, others called into question the existence and uniqueness of standards in general and the adequacy of language in expressing knowledge. I argue that the prevailing positive view of knowledge ultimately gave rise to an interesting and nuanced form of skepticism grounded in a form of perspectivism. This skepticism does not merely have the negative consequence that we should question some of our knowledge commitments, but can also be used to suggest that – while still doubting – we can make practical use of our skepticism to improve our knowledge by considering a wider range of perspectives.

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