Time, Science, and Society in China and the West

By J. T. Fraser; N. Lawrence et al. | Go to book overview

Mohist Views of Time and Space: A Brief Analysis

Zhang Yinzhi

The summary that follows is that of Professor Zhang Yinzhi's complete paper, and not of the shortened version printed in this volume. It was edited by Professor N. Sivin, to whom the editors wish to express their appreciation.
Summary Views of time and space held by adherents of the Mohist school appear in six chapters of the Mo Zi (), known as the "Mohist canons," "Explanations of the canons," "Major illustrations," and "Minor illustrations." They were compiled ca. 300 B.C., which was a time of rapid economic development, when wars of conquest were frequent, and when political power and the relative strength of social classes were changing. As the possibilities of thought were explored by the socalled hundred schools of philosophy, the school led by Mo Zi (fl. ca. 350 B.C.) and named after him was the most systematic in its integration of all knowledge.
In the six late chapters of the Mo Zi, time and space are said to be infinite. This infinity is related to both the macrocosm and the microcosm so that finiteness and the infinite are dialectically integrated. This is a materialist view of time and space. The propositions concerning natural science in which it occurs are part of a larger set that integrates them with propositions concerning philosophical utilitarianism and moral and political views (of which the most famous is the Mohists' notion of universal love).
The Mohist arguments were part of contemporary debates in which time and space were at issue; the arguments of others who took part in this discussion will be examined. Mohist views may also be compared with those found in ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, and India. They are pertinent to the foundations of modern science, to experimental method, and to the mathematizaion of empirical observation.*

1. Background to Mohist Philosophy

From about 500 to 300 B.C. China underwent an era of rapid development in the modes of production (such as the extensive use of iron tools) as well as one of violent political change.

____________________
*
Unfortunately, it was impossible to produce a critically acceptable translation of the complete paper within the period available for the preparation of this volume. With the author's permission and the assistance of Hans Ågren, M. D., the paper was therefore boldly reduced, limiting it almost entirely to direct quotes from the Mohist writings. The Mohist canons present textual problems of great complexity in the matter of their translation and comprehension. For a masterful essay, bringing a part of the material to the light of contemporary understanding, see A. C. Graham and N. Sivin, "A Systematic Approach to Mohist Optics (ca. 300 B.C.)" in Chinese Sciences: Exploration of an Ancient Tradition, ed. Shigeru Nakayama and Nathan Sivin ( Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1973), pp. 105-52. The reader may also wish to consult the elaboration of Master Mo doctrine, in "Time in Chinese Philosophy and Natural Philosophy" in Joseph Needham essay in The Voices of Time and follow up his references to Mohist thought in Science and Civilisation in China. For samples of the chapters from the Mo Zi book mentioned by Zhang Yinhzi, see, Basic Writings of Mo Tzu, Hsün Tzu, and Han Fei Tzu, trans. Burton Watson ( New York: Columbia University Press, 1967).

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