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Reviewed by:
  • Philosophy of Language, Chinese Language, Chinese Philosophy: Constructive Engagement ed. by Bo Mou
  • Rohan Sikri (bio)
Philosophy of Language, Chinese Language, Chinese Philosophy: Constructive Engagement. Edited by Bo Mou. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2018. Pp. xvii + 552. Hardcover €240.00, ISBN 978-90-04-36844-6.

With fourteen individual contributions, a substantial "Theme Introduction," and numerous postscripts and "Engaging Remarks," this is a sprawling text that, by dint of its sheer volume, will interest a diverse readership engaged in problems of language in Chinese philosophy. The explicitly stated methodological objectives of the editor, Bo Mou, function as the guiding thread, stitching together all the various explorations in this volume under a common rubric that he designates the "constructive-engagement strategy." Mou inaugurates the proceedings by marking a sharp distinction between phonetic and ideographic languages, and, drawing our attention to the preponderance of philosophical investigations into the former kind, offers this text as a correction to the field of philosophy of language. The hope is that this volume will add to our understanding of the general problems of language philosophy–those concerning the relationship between language, thought, and reality–by shifting the focus to the structures of an ideographic language like Chinese. The "constructive-engagement strategy," however, is a comparative method that is, above all, complementary in its ethos (enthused, as it were, by the spirit of Donald Davidson's "principle of charity" that often makes an appearance across these hundreds of pages). The editorial decisions evident in the organization of the material in this text are thus motivated equally by the need to bring the resources of philosophy of language (as it has been undertaken in the Western academy) to bear on the further development of a conceptual apparatus for the study of language in the domain of Chinese philosophy. This metaphilosophical register, foregrounding a discrete methodology to be utilized in reading texts and articulating problems comparatively, is arguably as valuable as the text's specific explorations of questions of language. Mou's decision to expend considerable energy and space in accounting for what it means to compare in a fruitful way, and his attempt to structurally identify the components of his method of "constructive-engagement," are valiant attempts in establishing a standard for comparative work. Notwithstanding disagreements that one might justifiably find with the structure of "constructive-engagement," it contributes to a larger effort in making philosophical work more self-aware, appreciative of boundaries [End Page 668] (variously construed by way of tradition, history, language, etc.), and ultimately, a more compassionate undertaking.

The text's six parts cover vast groupings of themes and problems deemed to be major sites of contestation and complementarity between Chinese philosophy and the philosophy of language. Part I, entitled "Semantic-Syntactic Structure of Chinese Names and Issue of Reference," begins with an intervention in the debates surrounding Gongsun Long's 'White Horse Paradox.' Byeong-uk Yi's essay offers a clear explanation of the major inflection points in the scholarship on this text and proceeds to differ from the two dominant interpretive trends that either view the paradox as a claim about universal classes (the classes of "horseness" and "white horseness") or as one that distinguishes between particular entities (per Hansen's 'Mass-Stuff' hypothesis). Yi takes exception to the assumption, underlying both of the foregoing interpretations, that the paradox has a predicative referential structure. His suggestion instead is that the character ma 馬 refers to an order of concrete individuals, and that, correspondingly, the structure of the paradox–now rendered as "The white horses are not the horses"–should be understood in terms of a "plural definite description." Mou contributes an account of "double-reference," in which the particular semantic relation that names have to objects as part of ordinary usage (a relation that is a 'double reference' to both the object as a whole and to some specific attribute in relation to the whole) allows for an additional interpretive strategy in dealing with the 'white horse.' Marshall Willman offers a dramatically different approach to questions of semantic structure and problems of reference, diverging from central assumptions about the analytical method, viz. making judgments about the structure of human thought based on representations...


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