Distinctions and Reasoning in Chinese Thought

The research in this paper was completed in 1999–2000 and formed the backbone of my PhD dissertation. The key ideas were presented at conferences in 1999, 2001, and 2010, although for various reasons I did not publish this work until 2012.

The account of early Chinese models of cognition and reasoning presented here is the foundation for my other work in Chinese philosophy of mind, action, and ethics.

An abstract of the paper follows.

The paper is in History and Philosophy of Logic 34.1 (2013), 1–24. The online version is already available here. To download an author’s preprint, click here.

Distinctions, Judgment, and Reasoning
in Classical Chinese Thought

Chris Fraser, University of Hong Kong


The paper proposes an account of the classical Chinese view of reasoning and argumentation that grounds it in a semantic theory and epistemology centered around drawing distinctions. Pre-Qín thinkers have a model of reasoning based on a cluster of concepts that includes names (míng 名), similarity (ruò 若 and tóng 同), kinds (lèi 類), models (法), and distinction drawing (biàn 辯). Judgment is understood as the attitude of predicating a term of something, or, equivalently, that of distinguishing whether or not something is the kind of thing denoted by that term. Reasoning and argumentation are not explained by appeal to the model of a syllogism or a premises-conclusion argument. Instead, reasoning is the process of considering how some acts of term predication, or distinction drawing, normatively commit one to making further, analogous predications or drawing further, analogous distinctions. Inference is typically understood as the act of predicating a term of something as a consequence of having distinguished that thing as similar to a model for the kind of thing denoted by that term. Inference is thus in effect an act or sequence of acts of pattern recognition. The paper concludes by summarizing the consequences of the proposed account of early Chinese semantic and logical theories for the interpretation of other aspects of pre-Qin thought.

Keywords: Chinese logic, language and logic in ancient China, ancient Chinese logical theory, 中國邏輯學, 先秦邏輯學, 中國語言哲學, 先秦語言哲學