Tsinghua Logic

Truth in Mohist Dialectics


Time: 10:00 — 12:00 am, August 3, 2012
Location: Xinzhai meeting room 353, Tsinghua University
Speaker: Chris Fraser (University of Hong Kong)

Abstract: 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 Mohist 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 models 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 has contended that the best explanation of the first
and third models is that the Mohists are concerned not with truth, but with “appropriate word or language
usage” or pragmatic “assertibility.” He suggests that the Mohists 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
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 (books 8–37) and in the
Mohist dialectical texts—the six books that form the so-called “later Mohist” texts or Mohist “Dialectics.” Both
use the same terminology for such criteria, referring to them as fa (model, standard). Unlike the core books,
however, passages in the dialectical 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 might make
in a debate over which of two terms fits an object. If the three standards are not criteria of truth, are these later
Mohist texts also evaluating utterances in terms of some pragmatic status, rather than truth? Does a concept akin
to truth have any role in Mohist dialectics, whether in the core books or the dialectical texts? Hansen argues
boldly that “Chinese philosophy has no concept of truth” and that later Mohist 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 arguments 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 Mohist dialecticians evaluated the status of 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
This essay will review the case for the claims that the Mohists’ three standards are something other than
standards of truth and that even later Mohist dialectics employs no term of semantic evaluation corresponding to
“true.” I will argue that Hansen is correct 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
scope probably covers questions of truth. Later Mohist dialectics likewise does not focus specifically on truth or
employ a concept that aligns exactly with “true.” Nevertheless, I will 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.

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