Knowledge and Error in Early Chinese Thought

(Posted 16 November 2008; updated 20 May 2010)

This preprint is a preliminary contribution to a long-term research project on knowledge and action in classical Chinese philosophy. The paper is forthcoming in Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 10.2 (Summer 2011).

I frame the paper around the question of why skeptical arguments from illusion play no role in pre-Han epistemology, even though the Mohists and Xunzi both discuss illusion. I suggest that the skeptical force of the argument from illusion is grounded in a broadly representational conception of mind and knowledge. Since early Chinese thinkers do not conceive of knowledge in terms of accurate representation, but as a kind of ability or competence, illusion does not inspire the worry that the agent might somehow fall out of touch with the world. A major claim of the paper is that early Chinese theorists explain cognitive error, including perceptual error, in terms of the distinction between part and whole, not that between appearance and reality.

Update (20 May 2010): Download the revised version of the paper here.

Keywords: Chinese epistemology, Chinese skepticism, Mohist epistemology, Xunzi’s epistemology, 中國哲學與知識論, 中國哲學與懷疑論, 墨家的知識論, 荀子的知識論