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  • Theories of Truth in Chinese Philosophy: A Comparative Approach by Alexus McLeod
  • Frank Saunders Jr. (bio)
Theories of Truth in Chinese Philosophy: A Comparative Approach. By Alexus McLeod. London: Rowman and Littlefield International, 2016. Pp. 197. Paper $39.95, isbn 978-1-78348-345-7.

Did ancient Chinese philosophers offer theories of truth? Some scholars hold that they did not. Alexus McLeod's Theories of Truth in Chinese Philosophy: A Comparative Approach offers an ambitious response to these scholars by arguing that ancient Chinese philosophers both employed multiple truth concepts and offered theories of truth. McLeod begins with a discussion of the relationship between truth and philosophy followed by a critical discussion of the interpretive debate over the status of truth in ancient China (Introduction; chap. 1). He then offers novel interpretations of early Chinese philosophical texts ranging from the Warring States period to the Han dynasty that he believes display a theoretical interest in truth (chaps. 2–6).

Overall, McLeod's two best-supported claims are (1) that ancient Chinese philosophers both had and used terms that assessed the semantic adequacy (i.e., truth) of language and therefore count as truth concepts (pp. 18–20), and (2) that an interest in the pragmatic adequacy of language did not prevent ancient Chinese thinkers from having a pragmatic theory of truth (pp. 16–18, 64–66). The first point he argues for [End Page 324] primarily by citing examples from the Lunyu, Mencius, Xunzi, Lüshi chunqiu, and Lunheng, while the second one he argues for using Mohist writings. This review will focus on the first point, since it makes up the majority of the book.

McLeod begins by contending that the concept of truth, as well as a number of related categories, is essential to any project of "intellectual production" (p. x), and is therefore important in ancient Chinese thought (pp. ix–xv, 33–34). He worries that the scholars he criticizes—primarily Hansen and Hall and Ames—who see philosophers in ancient China as either lacking or uninterested in the concept of truth, rely upon narrow and Western-centric conceptions of truth, as well as monolithic views of ancient Chinese thought (pp. 21–26, 64–65). According to McLeod, since truth is a universal philosophical concept, we should expect that ancient Chinese philosophers utilized and theorized about it. However, in offering his critique and alternative, McLeod replaces his opponents' generalizations about Chinese thought with an even more ambitious generalization about all philosophy, which he then uses to guide his interpretations. McLeod therefore adopts a methodology of positing a priori axioms and interpreting texts in accordance with them, which raises serious hermeneutical challenges, as he thereby encloses himself in a narrow interpretive space without room to adequately consider alternative interpretations.

For example, against Hall and Ames' claim that in ancient Chinese philosophy there was no appearance-reality distinction—a distinction that McLeod holds is deeply related to the concept of truth—McLeod cites the butterfly dream story from Book 2 of the Zhuangzi (pp. 23–25). He argues that since the story explicitly concerns the appearance-reality distinction, it would have had no intelligible dialectical context unless there was an appearance-reality distinction in the discourse already. However, rather than use textual evidence from the dialectical context and secondary literature to support his view, McLeod argues that the necessity of the appearance-reality distinction guarantees that his interpretation is sound. It does not, though. Interpretations that do not prioritize the concepts of appearance and reality may do a better job of explaining this text1 as well as more general early Chinese theories of cognition, perception, knowledge, and error.2 Alternative interpretations take the point of the passage to be that individual perspectives are irreducibly plural and limited, so no one perspective can legitimately claim normative or epistemic priority over another. These and similar interpretations still explain the text's main worry as epistemic uncertainty, but of a different kind than that arising from the appearance-reality distinction.

Indeed, in spite of his arguments that scholars such as Hansen or Hall and Ames may neglect the tradition's philosophical insights by denying that it utilizes concepts such as...


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