Truth in Mohist Dialectics

Update (August 13, 2012): The Introduction and the full-text paper linked below are revised versions of the originally posted paper (posted Nov. 16, 2011). “Mohist” has been revised to “Moist,” JCP‘s preferred form.

This paper appears in the Journal of Chinese Philosophy 39.3 (2012): 351–368. To download the full paper, use this link.

In lieu of an abstract, I’ve reproduced the Introduction here.

Truth in Mohist Dialectics

Chris Fraser

University of Hong Kong

The Mozi famously proposes three “standards” (biao 表) or “models” (fa 法) as criteria for evaluating teachings, claims, or policies. A longstanding controversy in the interpretation of Moist thought concerns exactly what the three standards are criteria of. Are they intended to evaluate whether a teaching is true, morally right, pragmatically useful, or something else? A seemingly natural interpretation, motivated partly by Western philosophical assumptions, is that the standards are criteria for judging the truth of an assertion or theory. Watson, for instance, interprets them as three tests of the “validity” of a “theory.” Schwartz and Wong both take them to be three tests for “verifying a proposition.” Graham calls them three tests of “assertion” and contends that they concern issues that are “purely factual.” In a more recent discussion, Van Norden suggests that they are “indicators of truth.” Against these interpretations, Hansen contends that the best explanation of the standards is that the Moists are concerned not with truth, but with “appropriate word or language usage” or pragmatic “assertibility.” He suggests that the Moists are not treating the semantic issue of how to determine whether a sentence is true, but the pragmatic one of how to determine whether the use of words is appropriate.

The general approach of evaluating statements, actions, and policies by distinguishing whether they are relevantly similar to a standard figures prominently both in the core books of the Mozi, which present the Moists’ “ten doctrines,” and in the Moist dialectical texts, the six books that form the so-called “later Moist” texts or Moist “Dialectics.” Both use the same terminology, referring to such criteria as fa (model, standard). Unlike the core books, however, the later Moist texts explicitly treat semantic issues, such as the grounds by which to distinguish whether things fall under the same general term and the status of utterances disputants make in debating which of two terms fits an object. If the three standards are not criteria of truth, are these later Moist texts also evaluating utterances in terms of some pragmatic status, rather than truth? Does a concept akin to truth have any role in Moist dialectics, whether in the core books or the dialectical texts? Hansen argues boldly that “Chinese philosophy has no concept of truth” and that later Moist thought instead applies purely pragmatic, not semantic, terms of evaluation. Utterances are evaluated as to whether they are “admissible” or “assertible” by practical standards, not by whether they are correct in a specifically semantic sense. He offers three main grounds for this interpretation. The first is that early Chinese theories of language had a pragmatic, not semantic, orientation, and thus there was no role for a concept of truth. The second is that early Chinese thinkers did not theorize about the status of sentences, the units of language that admit of evaluation as true or false. The third is that Moist dialecticians evaluated utterances not in terms of a concept corresponding to truth, but in terms of whether they were ke 可 (“permissible”), a concept with a pragmatic connotation.

This essay reviews the case for the claims that the Moists’ three standards are something other than standards of truth and that even the dialectical texts employ no term of semantic evaluation corresponding to “true.” I concur with Hansen that the three standards are not criteria of truth, specifically, but of a more general notion of the correct dao 道 (way). However, they do not preclude a concern with truth, and their application probably covers questions of truth. Later Moist dialectics likewise does not focus specifically on truth or employ a concept that aligns exactly with “true.” Nevertheless, I argue, the texts do employ terms that play the same expressive role as “…is true.” Thus, contra Hansen’s thesis, these texts can justifiably be said to have a concept of semantic truth.