An example of Chinese Logic

The following is an excerpt from The Historical Records of Sima Qian, a Chinese historian who compiled a massive compendium of early Chinese history. It was written about 2300 years ago.


“Only the intelligent sovereign seems capable of practicing this. If he behaves like this, then he may be said to be practicing supervision and allocating responsibility. If he really and truly does so, then the subjects are without depravity; and if the subjects are without depravity, then all under Heaven is at peace; if all under Heaven is at peace, then the sovereign’s severity is venerated; if the sovereign’s severity is venerated, then the supervision and allocation of responsibility become automatic; if the supervision and allocation of responsibility become automatic, then what is sought is obtained; if what is sought is obtained, then the nation becomes rich; if the nation becomes rich, then the ruler’s pleasures are abundant. So when the techniques of supervision and responsibility are established, then everything which is desired is obtained. If all the officials and common people are not granted a respite from their mistakes, then what rebellion is it that they will venture to plot?”

This is gobbledygook. Contrast it with the writings of the Greeks from a century earlier; there’s a chasm between this and the precise, carefully specified statements of Aristotle. Some of it can be attributed to translation problems; Chinese writing involves a great many subtleties and often Chinese ideas do not translate well. Yet this material was translated by an expert historian who clearly understood the context in which the material was written; while the translation cannot be perfect, I think we can safely regard this as a reliable example of Chinese thought processes two thousand years ago.

Note also that the final sentence has absolutely nothing to do with the earlier portions of the material. How can people think rationally when ideas are piled together so randomly?

And what a mess they are! It presents a sequence of seven connected conditions in a manner vaguely reminiscent of a Socratic line of reasoning. Unlike the careful reasoning of Socrates, few of the connections here make any sense, and none of them are strictly true, much less provable. Why in the world should we believe that practicing supervision and allocating responsibility will prevent depravity among the subjects? And why is the mere prevention of depravity capable of guaranteeing universal peace? I can see how universal peace would be conducive to the veneration of the emperor, but how would such veneration make the supervision and allocation of responsibility automatic? Weirdest of all, how could automatic supervision and allocation of responsibility guarantee that “what is sought is obtained”? Yes, it does make sense that, if everything sought is obtained, the nation would become rich, but I would expect a lot more than mere riches to flow from so stupendous an achievement. And why in the world is the ultimate goal of all this to provide the emperor with abundant pleasures?

This excerpt reads like a chain of cause and effect, but in truth it’s nothing more than idle speculation. While the Greeks were developing logic, mathematics, geometry, rhetoric, medicine, astronomy, and other rigorous fields of human inquiry, the Chinese were wasting their time with highfalutin bullshit. By the turn of the millennium, Western rationalism had left Chinese thought in the dust, and the eventual technological superiority of the Western world was a certainty. It would take nearly two more millennia for that advantage to manifest itself technologically, but the paths of the two civilizations were already laid down and the broad trajectories of their futures established.

Meng K’e
Another example of Chinese logic is provided by an analysis of the use of analogy by Meng K’e, the second most important Chinese thinker (after Confucius). Analogy is not considered rigorous by Western standards, but it was a common form of disputation among Chinese thinkers. Herewith a sample:

Somebody raised the issue of taxation with Meng K’e. They observed that it was impractical to reduce the tax rate to 10% immediately, and asked his opinion of reducing the tax rate partially until next year, when the full reduction could be put into effect. Meng K’e replied:

“Here is a man who appropriates one of his neighbor’s chickens every day. Someone tells him, ‘This is not the way of the gentleman.’ He answers, ‘May I reduce this to one chicken a month and wait until next year before stopping altogether?’ If one realizes that something is morally wrong, then one should stop doing it as soon as possible. Why wait for next year?”

The flaws in this reasoning glare in the eye of a Westerner. First, levying taxes is morally not equivalent to stealing chickens. Second, the reduction in taxes was constrained by practical considerations, not moral ones. “As soon as possible” was the next year, not immediately. Yet this kind of reasoning was considered to be profound enough to deserve preservation for two thousand years.

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