PHIL2420 Chinese Philosophy: Metaphysics

(First semester, 2011–2012 Academic Year)

(Lectures: Mon, 14:00–15:55, MB142 Tutorials: TBA)

This course will explore the metaphysics of dào 道, the most fundamental metaphysical concept in early Chinese philosophy. Questions we will consider include: What is dào? What determines the right dào? How is dào interrelated with other key metaphysical concepts, including tian 天 (nature) and shí 實 (stuff)? How is dào interrelated with psychological notions such as xìng 性 (dispositions), xīn 心 (heart), and 德 (virtuosity, power)? What consequences does the metaphysics of dào have for the status of human knowledge and ethical norms? The course will focus on five major texts—Mèngzǐ 孟子, Mòzǐ 墨子, Xúnzǐ 荀子, Dàodéjīng 道德經, and Zhuāngzǐ 莊子 —and will devote much attention to how these texts criticize and respond to each other’s views. Other texts we may touch on if time permits include Guǎnzǐ 管子, Lǚshì Chūnqiū 呂氏春秋, and Huáinánzǐ 淮南子.

The course will be a mixture of lecture and seminar-style discussions. You will be asked to read and discuss primary source texts and participate actively in class discussion and tutorials. You are encouraged to read the original sources in Chinese, but translations will be available for those without knowledge of classical Chinese.

Learning Objectives and Outcomes

After completing the course, students should be able to:

  • Explain at least three major issues regarding the metaphysics of dào in early Chinese philosophy.

  • Discuss the significance of these issues, including their bearing on knowledge and ethics.

  • State, compare and contrast, and critically evaluate various Ruist, Mohist, and Daoist approaches to these issues.

  • Demonstrate interpretive, analytical, and argumentative skills in oral presentation and writing by discussing these issues and approaches in written assignments and tutorials.

Provisional Syllabus

1. Introduction (Sept 5)

Reading: Hansen, “An Analysis of Dao”; Shafer-Landau, “Introduction,” 1–9; Griffin, Value Judgment, 52–67. Optional supplementary reading: Shafer-Landau, 13–52; Griffin, 37–51; Hansen, “The Metaphysics of Dao”; Sayre-McCord, “Metaethics.”

2. Heaven’s Mandate 天命, Analects, and Mencius (Sept 12)

Reading: Selections from Shūjīng 書經, Lúnyǔ 論語, and Mèngzǐ 孟子 (see online readings file).

3. Mòzǐ 墨子 (Sept 19, 26)

Reading: Mòzǐ readings file; Fraser, “Mohism.”

Tutorial 1 (week of 9/19): Orientation and general discussion.

4. Mohist Dialectics 墨辯 (Oct 3)

Reading: Mohist Dialectics readings file; Fraser, “Mohist Canons,” sections 1, 4, and 6.

Tutorial 2 (week of 10/3). Reading: Duda, “Reconsidering Mo Tzu on the Foundations of Morality”; Johnson, “Mozi’s Moral Theory: Breaking the Hermeneutical Stalemate.”

5. Xúnzǐ 荀子 (Oct 10, 24, 31)

Reading: Xúnzǐ readings file; Robins, “Xunzi.”

Tutorial 3 (week of 10/24). Reading: Hagen, “The Concepts of Li and Lei in the Xunzi: Constructive Patterning of Categories”; Van Norden, “Hansen on Hsun Tzu.”

6. Dàodéjīng 道德經 (Nov 7, 14)

Reading: Dàodéjīng readings file; Hansen, “Taoism”; Csikszentmihalyi, “Mysticism and Apophatic Discourse in the Laozi.”

Tutorial 4 (week of 11/14). Reading: Angle and Gordon, “‘Dao’ as a Nickname”; Masami, “A Philosophical Analysis of the Laozi from an Ontological Perspective.” (Optional reading: Van Norden et al., “The Dao Debate.”)

7. Zhuāngzǐ 莊子 (Nov 21, 28)

Reading: Zhuāngzǐ readings file; Fraser, “Wandering the Way.”

Tutorial 5 (week of 11/28). Reading: Robins, “‘It Goes Beyond Skill’”; Walker, “The Unity of Dao: Ethics and Metaethics in the Qiwulun.

Coursework and Assessment

Students will be expected to participate actively in class discussion (20% of total grade) and four tutorials (20%); to complete two writing assignments (1000–1200 words each) (40%); and to meet for a final oral examination (20%). Since class discussion and tutorial discussion together account for 40% of the grade, attendance and active participation will be essential.


All readings will be available through the course website. For the site address, contact the instructor or tutors.