Chinese Metaphysics Conference

Update: The full author’s manuscript of “The Mohist Conception of Reality” is now available for download here. (This is an updated version of March 2014.)

The paper will appear in a forthcoming anthology on Chinese metaphysics edited by Chenyang Li, Franklin Perkins, and Alan Chan.

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I’ll be speaking next month at a conference on metaphysics in the Chinese tradition at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. The conference is “Conceptions of Reality: Metaphysics and Its Alternatives in Chinese Thought,” scheduled for 29-30 Mar 2013. Much thanks to Prof. Chenyang Li for organizing this event. I’ll be talking about how Mohist thought sets the agenda for much of early Chinese metaphysics. A preliminary abstract follows.

The Mohist Conception of Reality

Chris Fraser
University of Hong Kong

The paper will explore the understanding of reality that emerges from Mohist doctrines concerning Tian 天 (Heaven), ghosts and spirits, the san fa 三法 (three models), and ming 命 (fate), touching on metaphysical, metaethical, and epistemological issues. Reality for the Mohists is reliably knowable through sense perception, inference, and historical precedent. It follows fixed, recognizable patterns. Agents are able to autonomously affect the course of events—and thus have a form of free will—and to identify and act on objective ethical norms. Ethical norms are a human-independent feature of reality, and indeed reality itself operates according to the same ethical norms that apply to human activity. The Mohist dao thus purports to be the dao of reality itself, grounded in supposedly reliable knowledge of the world. The paper will discuss the philosophical significance of these metaphysical views, the problems they raise, and how they set the agenda for much pre-Qin philosophical discourse, especially the Xunzi and the Zhuangzi. The paper will also inquire whether the later Mohist “Dialectics” abandons the strongly realist stance of earlier Mohist thought.