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  • On the Epistemology of the Senses in Early Chinese Thought
  • Xinyan Jiang
On the Epistemology of the Senses in Early Chinese Thought. By Jane Geaney. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2002. Pp. vii + 267. Paper $20.00.

On the Epistemology of the Senses in Early Chinese Thought by Jane Geaney is a most valuable and original work on Chinese philosophical views of the senses [End Page 489] in the Warring States period (ca. fifth to third centuries B.C.). It may well be the first systematic study of this topic in the English-speaking world. For this reason alone, it is worthy of attention from all who study Chinese philosophy.

The book includes a wide range of discussions of the positions presented in classical Chinese philosophical texts such as the Lunyu, the Mozi, the Mengzi, the Laozi (Daodejing), the Zhuangzi, and especially the Xunzi. Based on these texts, the author argues that there are some shared views on the senses among early Chinese philosophers and that these Chinese views are significantly different from those in Western philosophy. What best distinguishes early Chinese theories of the senses from Western ones is their view of sense discrimination.

Sense discrimination is the subject of this book, which carefully examines early Chinese views on the individual senses, especially hearing and seeing, and their relation to the "heartmind" (xin). Geaney uses the term "sense discrimination" to mean something other than "sense perception" or "sensation." By "sense" Geaney refers to "things like hearing, seeing and other specialized forms of interaction between the inside and outside of human beings" (p. 175); by "sensation" she means one's direct and private awareness of sense data (p. 31); and by "sense perception" she refers to the interpretation of sense data (p. 32). Sense discrimination might be something that lies between sensation and perception since it neither represents sense data as directly as sensation does nor interprets sense data as much as perception does. It seems that by "sense discrimination" Geaney refers to the distinguishing function of the senses. For Geaney, sense discrimination is "the general operations characteristic of each of the senses" (p. 175). In other words, a typical operation of a sense always involves discrimination although it does not involve inference. For instance, to sense a color is to discern it "in terms of a background of other colors and the preferences associated with that form of discrimination" (p. 35). Since sense discrimination is a non-inferential activity and does not involve the employment of a concept, it is still a function of the senses but not a function of reason.

For Geaney, knowledge associated with sense discrimination in early Chinese thought is different from sensation and perception as understood in Western philosophy, but has some resemblance to aspect perception in the Wittgensteinian sense. Aspect perception is the perception of particular aspects of the objects that are perceived. For example, "seeing x as a rabbit" or "seeing x as a duck" is an aspect perception (p. 33). It seems to Geaney that in Western philosophy, at least in so-called representative realism, the function of sensation is to represent sense data, and the function of perception is to interpret sense data. Sense data in themselves are content-neutral and uninterpreted. The knowledge gained from sensation involves uninterpreted raw data only and is therefore infallible, while knowledge from perception is based on the interpretation of raw data and is therefore not error-free. Aspect perception does not involve inference but does involve interpretation. Therefore, it is fallible as well (pp. 31-32). Geaney argues that in Warring States Chinese thought there was not a notion of sense data that are uninterpreted raw material. Hence, Warring States Chinese philosophers did not [End Page 490] have the concepts of sensation and perception as understood in Western traditions (p. 33).

According to Geaney, although the distinction between things "as they seem to us" and things "as they are in themselves" was not a philosophical problem, and skepticism was not a real issue in early Chinese thought, it was not the case that early Chinese philosophers simply held a naive realist position that our senses always tell us what things...


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