Chinese (and Greek) Thought - Revisited

10 posts


( Re-post )

Let's get this straight: the Chinese (and Indians... and anybody except the Greeks of antiquity and modern Europeans) were extremely feeble thinkers. Their "thought" (as far as I can determine), before the 19th century and contact with Western science, mostly consisted of childish metaphors, false analogies (that they don't even follow through to the end), etc., instead of the actual shaping of exact conceptions. So the Chinese will be another excuse to talk about the Greeks. The former lacked:

* The notion of an exact mathematical proof, and more importantly, the necessity of proving things in general. The consequence of this is the lack of any complicated notions, or concepts that split into subconcepts in an involuted way (and so, no recursive concepts (like the notion of a "derivative" in calculus - and BTW, the notion of a derivative is necessary for any concept of "potential" in any part of physics, or pretty much just all of modern mathematics and physics), no genuine "models" of anything in reality). A Hungarian historian of science (I believe it was Szebo or some such) argued that the Greeks developed the notion of mathematical proof from the Eleatic philosophers, and their method of "indirect demonstration" (i.e., argument by contradiction). Now, contradiction arguments are in principle of limited technical interest - you only use fragments of the information given, and follow its deductive consequences. A proof only gets interesting , on the other hand, when you build up . That is, it leads to the making of constructions (such as in elementary geometry or number theory) that have no direct analogues with anything known, but which captures all of the information at once, from which something deductively follows. You are (in the attempt to prove something difficult) impelled to build up - by pure trial and error at first, with nothing more than the conviction that there must be something there; something more than merely one or other piece of the problem. An easy example of this would be the compactness theorem of predicate logic in the countable case (proved by Goedel) - you make a construction that captures all the information at once, rather than one at a time (by means of contradiction arguments).

This is actually the source of mathematical advance - first there must be the vast variety of different constructions (e.g., inductively defined objects) for specific purposes, and only then can you see the analogy between them - or the analogy between how one construction captures information in one case rather than another.

* But even without the above, what a formal proof impels one to do is to break apart or decompose conceptions, as Leibniz talked about - except one sees the analogy between how one problem is broken into subproblems, and the case in another. (It is all a matter of how it is split into subproblems, and the wrong way to decompose a problem will simply cause confusion.) And there is also the general notion of quantification, and the difference between the intensional and extensional view (Leibniz took the intensional view). The Chinese never systematically took concepts apart, never improved notation, etc., and so they never ... etc.

* More fundamentally, every single leap in our mode of knowledge is due to importing methods from one area of thought into another. The creation of pure mathematics is a case in point. Aristotle's categories, creation of formal logic, and general mode of "classification" (the simple and powerful notions that form the basis of metaphysics) were taken by applying methods of classification from medicine and biology, and one should not forget that Aristotle was an Asclepiad . Leibniz was the first to see the full range of symbolical analogy - consider, for example, the easy way in which he drew the striking correspondence between a n-th order differential operator and the exponentials of the binomial expansion (the Rule of Leibniz :


... or the way the Leibnizian notation developed into the calculus, and these were in fact (I am convinced) due to his application of methods from juridical reasoning and practice into mathematics (Euler then inherited the best tendencies of both Leibniz and Newton). Thomson's principle of seeking an analogy between different regions of physical theory was inspired by Boole's symbolical methods (at least this is very plausible - the one treatise came out when Thomson was a teenager). Maxwell took this to its height and it has only recently been reconstructed by moderns.

* The Chinese (and Indians) might be forgiven for not having the notion of proof, since the notion itself is so counterintuitive (in fact Newton first throught that Euclid was silly, since one should not "prove" what is obvious) that it is still an open question how the Greeks came upon it in the first place. But they cannot be forgiven for not thinking about the methods of thought. There is the kind of thinker that immediately classifies conceptions so as to maintain the broadest range of analogy and possible combinations between them - Leibniz was such a thinker, as was Boole and Thomson and Maxwell, and on a smaller scale, in modern mathematics we have the founders of functional analysis (like Riesz), Gel'fand, Margulis (the greatest possible variety of connections between heterogeneous methods of proof - from ergodic theory, semisimple groups, etc.). Now, the Chinese have a word for "analogy" in their language. But most damningly, they never saw that the entire point was not about the analogy, but the kind of object that might be distinguished (in a continuous way) that the analogy is between. (And without explicitly thinking about the methods of thought, one never arrives at the notion of a "resemblance between two relations of resemblance".)

* Where the Chinese (not Indians) excel is in a purely "technical" form of intelligence. This is purely technical genius, which does not have to think about the methods of thought (and doesn't even have to think about the "big picture" or strategic "center" of a certain subject, as Newton and others did), since it has some ability to adjust all mental operations to suit some activity. That activity involves having a very fine sense of discrimination, to navigate betwen the thickets where every notion strongly resembles everything else (like Norbert Wiener's technical genius, in fourier analysis), but without making a vast simplification. Rather, the complicated remains complicated. (In this category we have Lennart Carlson and Vinogradov, arguably the two greatest "technical geniuses" ever.) Now, the Chinese mathematicians are mostly purely technical except for Chern. India has produced two great thinkers - Ramanujan and Harish-Chandra, great at least in seeing the deep connections that are literally approximate resemblances (this can also be said for Archimedes, Newton, Heaviside, I. Schur), rather than the greatest diversity of analogy (like: Leibniz, C. S. Peirce, Riesz, Gel'fand).

The "philosophic" legacy of China is exactly zero . To put this in perspective, Poland alone (Twardowski, Lesniewski, Kotarbinski, Wolenski even) has a much stronger philosophic legacy than China.

Chia Chu

Let us give the chinks some credit.
It is common knowledge that Heidegger’s phenomenology of Dasein was inspired by the Chinese school of Zhuangzi. Needless to say the Eastern schools of thought in general, and Taoist school in particular have had thousands of years invested in reflecting on meaning of existence.
-- A. N. Whitehead, Dialogues

From the same book (recorded by Lucien Price):

What exactly is the "dynamism" of thought? Why for one thing, it would not be "static thought":

All of Leibniz online:

Mathematical writings:

Scientific correspondence:

Philosophic correspondence:

Correspondence is mostly in French and German, unpublished MS however in Latin (including the mathematical writings). E.g.:

The best secondary source is the monumental Geometry and Monadology by De Risi, that is available as pdf from Springer or else any ebook website . From the preface:

From another useful collection on Leibniz ( Leibniz: What Kind of Rationalist? ), on Leibniz's "Hermetic rationalism":

Also, this book (among other sources) confirms a deep-seated suspicion of mine right from the beginning, that Leibniz "imported methods" from juridical practice (or maybe he just got it from Aristotle), and this to a great extent determined not only the style but motivation of mathematics:

Western philosophy has at best obtained only a sidelong glance at reality. If Indian thought seems feeble, it's because Indian philosophers have risen above thought. By emptying itself of the false images of the intellect, Indian philosophy has glimpsed that Reality which has no image - and which cannot be thought, because it is the object of all thought. Anyone who thinks he knows reality because he has made a diagram of it is the dupe of his own intellect. All science and all philosophy is, at best, nothing but a surface translation of reality into diagrams and formulas. "Proof" is just a showy exhibition. The problem with most of Western philosophy is that it has not yet risen above intellectual spheres of consciousness. As for the legacy of Chinese and Indian thought, I'm afraid you don't know what you are talking about.


This is supposed to be a thread in which, someone (in objecting) reveals something new about Chinese "philosophic thought" that can be actually be discussed. Unfortunately no other poster in this thread, as yet, seems to be equal to the task. So I must "debate myself" again:

There is a very good book on Chinese thought called Ironies of Oneness and Difference (2012). The point is that Chinese "philosophy" is (as I suspected all along) very radically different from the Greco-Occidental sort, and also from the Indian sort. This is coupled with the difficulty that all Chinese characters - in the way in which they are used - refer to different metaphors that are context-dependent (this is the same difficulty with Heraclitus, when he starts using "fire" and "water" to indicate more than what is referred to). The linguistic ambiguity makes translation hardly possible - instead it seems that the "experts" (including the author) just select a few passages and specify the right meaning by carefully distinguishing it from the various wrong ways of construing something. In that way (short of actually learning the language) we get an operational model of what they could have meant.

One of them is the Chinese character "Li". This is one of the few bits of specialized terminology, and it can mean anything ranging from "virtue" to "coherence". For the purposes of the book the author chooses "coherence" (but is anxious to say that it also depends on the particular "drift" of the passage and context).

One of the main features of Chinese thought is this - they do not start with an unambiguous idea of "sameness" and "difference", and instead speak of coherence instead of absolute identity or difference. (For e.g., this dog today is in a sense the same as the dog yesterday, but in another sense different, since the material composition of the dog is a bit different.) This generates a completely different set of puzzles than the ones investigated in Western philosophy - for one thing it excludes any possibility of even raising the question of universals and nominalism. (Again, this feature is analogous to - but not quite the same as - Whitehead's denial of simple location.) In the literature this has been called a "correlative theory" of naming, as distinct from realism or nominalism. Instead of entities, one speaks of actualities - but the actualities are not universals (like "redness" instantiated in a particular red thing). Instead, the doctrine of naming simply says that a red entity is red by virtue of its actuality, and by virtue of its actuality is called "red".

That would be my reconstruction of what they mean. But even if I am wrong about that, it is well-established that the fundamental conceptual building-blocks are different from those of Western scholastic philosophy. Instead of identity and difference, one speaks of "coherence" or "Li". Except (if you read the book) this has generated just as much elaborate paradox and discussion as the medieval disputes over realism and nominalism.

Now, this might seem strange if you notice what I said about "the "philosophic" legacy of China [being] exactly zero." In a certain sense this is true, but I worded it in that way to stimulate discussion. What they call "philosophy" is so radically different that although the author speaks of it as being an "alternative", I can actually see how it doesn't really contradict the Platonic, Aristotelian notions that form the language of medieval scholasticism or modern philosophy since Kant. Instead of speaking of absolute similarity and difference, and avoiding paradoxes when speaking of it (in the same way that Leibniz can cancel his infinitesimals without "essential error"), one instead starts off with a different irreducible notion ("coherence"), and yet it generates more paradoxes in the later stages. One way is just to give up, which is the tradition of "Taoism" and "Zen Buddhism" that are analogous to... whatever it is that Richard Rorty pretends to believe in. (Richard Rorty, like Zizek, is a "troll in real life".)

And yes, they (the Chinese and even Indians) were "feeble" thinkers - were, in the past tense. But the word "feeble" is specific - it refers to that lack of muscular ability to reduce problems into component problems in those situations when this is necessary. This is narrower than mental capacity in the broad sense (which would include the capacity of pure sensation, like the sensation of "red", not explicable in terms of any concepts at all). Speaking of being "above thought" is problematic... like speaking of being "above art". Both thought and art can be developed indefinitely, whereas being "above thought" cannot, and one gets bored of it eventually even if you do get there. (And the second problem is, that one can never be absolutely sure if one is really there or not.)


You could fill your 4 passages in one sentence - the Chinese never had a school of logic like the Greeks did, hence everything you mention.

But despite what modern British-American schools claim, logic and analysis isn't all there is to philosophy, its but one of the instruments of inquiry. What philosophical heritage they did leave us with is mostly preoccupied with the questions of social philosophy, ethics and to a small degree - aesthetics.


Logic was developed to a high degree in both india and china and then abandoned as indian and chinese philosophers moved towards transrational modes of comprehension -- modes that utilise rationality whilst going beyond it. i notice that Thoughts focuses on confucian philosophy but has nothing to say about lao tzu, chuang tzu, mozi, shankara, anumāna -theory, the nyaya sutras and school of logic, the upanishads, etc

the principle of identity within difference leads to paradox not because it is an erroneous proposition but because the ultimate nature of reality is paradoxical and transcendent to thought. the universe is dialectical, an "identity of opposites", as parmenides, spinoza, and hegel have speculated. accepting the paradoxical nature of reality is not 'giving up', it is a movement towards a deeper and wiser understanding of reality. we don't have to suspend reason in order to acknowledge the existence of that which transcends reason. The proposition, "x is paradoxical or non-logical" is an intelligible proposition capable of logical analysis and examination.

western philosophy as a whole has not yet matured enough to accept reality for what it is. this world of physical objects, logic, thought, time and space is only half of the world. it is, in fact, an illusion which disappears into nothingness before the absolute, which alone is. rationality is not in the final nature of reality. knowledge of the absolute is obtained only when the self sees itself as reflected in itself, which is only possible when the self is purged of all thought. we can only understand when we cease to think.

President Camacho
Thoughts , what say ye to Ixabert's suggestion?
In India - yes, absolutely. In China - no, not a single logic school in China ever existed. Neither Laozi, nor Zhuangzi nor Mozi ever created any logical schools or even came to understand and formulate abstract laws of logic.

In fact China and India are more different, than India and the West.

This passage is intellectually empty and doesn't really mean anything. For opposites even to exist and to create dialectics you need to have aristotelian logic first.