Logic, Language, and Grammar in Early China

By Boltz, William G. | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, April-June 2000 | Go to article overview

Logic, Language, and Grammar in Early China


Boltz, William G., The Journal of the American Oriental Society


In examining what he calls the "logical features" and "logical concepts" of the Classical Chinese language Christoph Harbsmeier has shown in this volume of Science and Civilisation in China that "logic is logic" and that, like mathematics, physics, and chemistry, for example, logic in China is no different from logic in the West in its primary, fundamental nature. Whatever differences there may appear to be are secondary matters of bow logical propositions are expressed in the language and of the accidental fact of the particular concerns of extant texts. An analysis of the logical features of Classical Chinese becomes a useful and revealing part of a comparative study of grammar in Classical Chinese and in the principal Western classical languages, Greek and Latin, and in English. Grammars may differ; the meanings of words and of syntactic constructions may differ, and as a consequence logical propositions may appear to be formulated in different ways in Chinese and English (or other Western languages), but the underlying premises and conclusions of logical reasoning are language independent, and the logical features of the Classical Chinese language reflect linguistic universals.

EARLY IN HIS OPENING SECTION ON "Method" Christoph Harbsmeier quotes the late Y. R. Chao's well-known quip that "...while aiming at finding out how Chinese logic operates, we shall probably end up with finding out how logic operates in Chinese" (p. 7). [1] Harbsmeier then apologizes: "I am afraid that I have ended up as Y. R. Chao feared...." One could do worse than end up as Y. R. Chao expected (not "feared"), and Professor Harbsmeier might well look more generously on the results of his own labors, because, as the universality of mathematics and physics would suggest, and as Chao implied and Harbsmeier himself has demonstrated in the work under review, "logic is logic," irrespective of the language in which it operates. How logical propositions, arguments, and conclusions are expressed may depend on linguistic structure, but logic itself is not language specific. Chao explored this briefly in relation to modern Chinese; Harbsmeier in this volume explores the same thing extensively in relation to Classical Chinese. The volume is, as readers of Science and Civilisation in China will expect, a survey. If the survey has also a thesis to argue, it is precisely this claim that "logic, like chemistry, is basically the same subject in China and in Greece" (p. 7).

Given this thesis, implicit throughout the book, there is a sense in which this volume bears more fundamentally on the grand theme of the Science and Civilisation in China enterprise than any of the many others that have appeared so far. From the very beginning of the venture Joseph Needham seems to have suspected that what he saw as the failure of China to develop a rigorous form of logical thinking comparable to that of the Greeks was part of the explanation for the differences in scientific development between China and the West, and that this (as he saw it) failure was in some yet-to-be-determined way a consequence of the "nature" of the Chinese language. Needham expressed this cautiously, yet with unmistakable suspicions implied, when in 1956 he anticipated the present volume: "At a later stage (Sect. 49) we shall enquire how far the differences of linguistic structure between Chinese and the Indo-European languages had influence on the differences between Chinese and Western logical formulations." [2] If we understand by Needham's use of the word "formulations" merely "expressions" or "reflections," then his remark is no different from Chao's mention of "how logic operates in Chinese," and Harbsmeier has examined this question in extenso within the confines of this single, if hefty, volume. But if we understand Needham to have meant something deeper, having to do with the nature of logic itself, then the question becomes one of differences between "Chinese logic" and "Western logic" and the answer to Needham's "how far?

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