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  • The Role of Time in the Structure of Chinese Logic
  • Jinmei Yuan


Chinese logicians in ancient times presupposed no fixed order in the world. Things are changing all the time. If this is true, then universal rules that aim to represent fixed order in the world for all time are not possible. Chinese logical reasoning instead foregrounds the element of time as now. Time, then, plays a crucial role in the structure of Chinese logic.

To disclose the special structure of Chinese logic, I shall discuss the Later Mohist Canon and the works of some other philosophers in ancient China. The Later Mohist writings can be taken as a summary of logical rules and principles that guided the Chinese in the development of their arguments. Some comparative philosophers have studied this great classical text from different perspectives. For example, Chinese scholars such as Fung Yu-lan, Tan Jiepu, and Xu Xiyan try to use Aristotelian formal logic to explain many of the rules and principles in the Later Mohist Canon.1 In the West, comparative philosophers such as A. C. Graham and Chad Hansen have also made careful examinations of this great classical text. Graham produced a fine translation, with detailed commentary, of the Later Mohist Canon, and Hansen has attempted to explain this work from a linguistic standpoint. Nevertheless, it is my contention that the structure of Chinese logic still remains unclear. This is because a number of the rules and principles cannot be made to fit within an Aristotelian framework; these are indeed more than merely linguistic matters. Here, I shall use the concept of "subjective time" and the Leibnizian concept of "possible worlds" to analyze the structure of logic in the Later Mohist Canon and in the logical reasoning of other early Chinese philosophers.

My proposal is that Chinese logic is structured in the present time or the time of the now. This time is subjective time and "spreads out" to more than one possible world. As indicated by one of the earliest definitions in the Later Mohist Canon, time was understood as a continuous flow of moments, which gives it an unavoidably subjective character. The moments in subjective time have no tense. They can exist in different possible worlds simultaneously. One evidence of this is that Chinese verbs have no particular tense. A possible world in the Chinese worldview is an open field. It opens for communication with the other possible worlds. Since Chinese logic was structured in subjective time, Chinese logicians had to deal with the relationship in not just in a single world but in more than one "possible world." "Possible world" is a key term in Leibnizian modal logic, according to which, a model for modal logic contains many "worlds," each with its own domain. [End Page 136] One can possibly be in one world or more than one world. Possibility and time play important roles in these worlds. I borrow this Leibnizian term despite enormous differences between Leibnizian modal logic and Chinese logic—communication among the possible worlds is allowed in Chinese logic but not in Leibnizian modal logic—because the term shows that Leibniz and Chinese logicians were moving in the same direction. In a particular possible world, rules in Chinese logic function only in the time of the now. The aim of Chinese logical reasoning is not to represent any universal truth, but to point out (zhi) a particular-world-related truth, or, in other words, the harmony of relations among particulars in a particular field at a single moment.

Therefore, Chinese logic is a kind of conversational reasoning, that is, a form of reasoning that deals with the relations among particulars in a current practical context. During conversational reasoning, the achievement of harmony requires subjective participation guided by a common aesthetic sense. A valid Chinese logical argument represents only the beauty of harmony among kinds (lei) or possible worlds at a given moment. The harmony represented by Chinese logic brings to light a high level of aesthetic order in a world that is always changing. While Western traditional logic demonstrates the beauty of a rational world, Chinese traditional logic represents the beauty of a world that is undergoing...


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