A.C. Graham’s Summary of Chinese Philosophy

Dear friends,

This extract comes from A.C. Graham’s Disputers of the Tao, an outstanding (and delightfully, if very subtly, idiosyncratic) introduction to Ancient Chinese philosophy. 

Here’s its first appendix. Short, but positively packed with ideas.

(Also, 人 — the term Graham translates as “man” — is fully gender neutral in Chinese.)


Disputers of the Tao (pp. 382-387)



Chinese ethical thinking starts from the spontaneity of inclination and the value of wisdom. We have suggested that it follows an implicit logical form approximating to the syllogism, applicable directly to concrete situations.

  • In awareness from all viewpoints, spatial, temporal and personal, of everything relevant to the issue, I find myself moved towards X; 
    overlooking something relevant I find myself moved towards Y.
    • In which direction shall I let myself be moved?
      • Be aware of everything relevant to the issue
        • Therefore let yourself be moved towards X.

Like the standard syllogism, a form into which Chinese thinking sometimes falls in practice, this quasi-syllogism is never identified in Chinese proto-logic. Let us start by clarifying our presentation of it in Western terms. It implies that ‘awareness’ (which we define as the capacity to take into account in choices) varies in degree, is welcomed or resisted as one is pulled in one direction or another, and in turn acts on inclination.

Assuming the value of wisdom, reactions in awareness will be better than reactions in ignorance. Inclination in increasing or diminishing awareness shifts ‘spontaneously’, in the sense that its swings are not chosen but caused by the changes in awareness. Factors are ‘relevant’ to the extent that they do act causally on inclination; the flavours of dishes, which spontaneously arouse desire or aversion, are relevant to choosing between them, the size of the dining room is not. A commitment that one is now sufficiently aware of everything relevant (without which there could be no confident choice) raises only the same difficulties as commitment to ‘All men are mortal’ and is to be dealt with in the same way, for example by appeal to Popper’s criterion of sustained failure to refute.

It is assumed, most explicitly in the Confucian concept of shu (‘likening to oneself’), that to the extent that you see from another person’s viewpoint you are also moved from it, just as from another spatial or temporal viewpoint of one’s own. I have elsewhere defended this unfamiliar assumption. Here I wish only to try out the proposal that the underlying logic of the quasi-syllogism, valid or invalid, establishes the problematic of Chinese philosophy in the classical age.

Translating into these terms, the ideal sage will for all Chinese schools be the man perfectly aware from all viewpoints, with the spontaneous desire and the ability to benefit all by orderly government. We may see the various schools as offering a full range of answers to questions raised by the quasi-syllogism.

(1) What is wisdom?

(1/1) Knowing how to correlate.

We have suggested that ancient China did not share the Western assumption that analytic thinking can wholly escape dependence on correlative. The sage, however much or little he may analyse, in the first place distinguishes, classifies, and fixes by naming; he reacts similarly to the similar, connectedly to the connected, and in distinguishing two sides spontaneously prefers one to the other. Cosmos and community divide into superior A and inferior B, Heaven/Earth, ruler/subject, father/son. What each in his position in cosmos and community would spontaneously incline to do in perfect awareness thus follows for Confucius immediately from correctness in naming, that is, from naming which correctly assimilates, contrasts, and connects. Until you have yourself achieved this awareness you have to control spontaneity and obey the instructions of those who know better, but afterwards like Confucius you can ‘follow the heart’s desire without transgressing rule.’

(1/2) Knowing how to analyse.

Attention shifts from correlation to analysis to the extent that controversy forces the schools into pien (‘argumentation’). Later Mohism goes so far as to build its ethic by analysis of moral concepts, to prove them to be ‘what the sage desires or dislikes beforehand on behalf of men’; even here the assumption is that the good is what the wisest spontaneously prefer. Attention shifts to analysis also in schools concerned with questions of means, the Legalists and to some extent the Mohists. There is a tendency to lose sight of the desires which means are designed to serve, even among the Mohists, who reject music as useless without denying that it is enjoyable for itself. Legalism verges on a pure system of means, with the ruler himself reduced either to a means or to an arbitrary will outside the system. This explains why Legalism could find a philosophical basis only by identifying the ruler with the Taoist sage, whose illumination confirms the value of the inclinations served by the state apparatus.

(1/3) Illumination, the mirroring of the particular situation without forcing it into classifications by naming (Taoism).

Knowledge itself tends to be identified with distinguishing and naming, and rejected as inadequate to the complexity of the moment. For Taoists, as much as for Confucians, the untrained have to control their spontaneity; but you surrender to pure spontaneity once you have unlearned the distinctions which channel inclination into habitual desires and dislikes.

(2) What is the spontaneous in man?

(2/1) For most schools, the opposites ‘desire/dislike’ or (as in the ‘Doctrine of the Mean’), ‘being pleased with/being angry with’, ‘joy/ sorrow’, from which all action starts. These reactions are described from the 3rd century B.C. in the terminology of kan ‘arousal’ (by external things) and ying ‘response’, curiously similar to the stimulation and response of Western behaviourism.

(2/2) Action itself when it is wu wei ‘doing nothing’ (Taoism). Desire and dislike spring from distinguishing and classifying; the behaviour of the sage who has unlearned distinctions springs directly from impulsion which is neither desire nor dislike. Chuang-tzu sometimes calls it ‘impulse’ or ‘impulse from Heaven’ (t’ien chi). Taoism does not however, as Buddhism was later to do, wholly refrain from calling it ‘desire’. All names being inadequate, this name too may be used and undermined by paradox, as in the first stanza of Lao-tzu, which requires us to be ‘constantly without desire’ yet ‘constantly have desire’. [In Spinozist terms, “active” vs. “passive” desires.]

(3) How does one settle on the Way, which is the course preferred in fullest awareness?

(3/1) Let inclination settle in one direction after contemplating the situation, without posing alternatives. This is the position not only of Taoists, who reject considered choice, but of Confucius, who seems not yet to have conceived it.

(3/2) Pose alternatives and wait for inclination to settle on one of them. With considered choice we meet such metaphors as weighing and the crossroads (Mohists, Yangists, Mencius, Hsün-tzu, Legalists).

(4) How do spontaneous desire and dislike become unselfish?

(4/1) One is spontaneously unselfish to the extent that one perceives the other man’s likeness to oneself (Confucian shu), or unlearns the whole distinction between self and other (Hui Shih, Taoism), and so is moved from other viewpoints as well as from one’s own. In terms of the quasi-syllogism, to let oneself be moved unselfishly would be a causally necessary condition of obeying ‘Be aware from all viewpoints’, so that its value would follow from the quasi-syllogism alone, without any need to claim that man is unselfish by nature irrespective of awareness.

(4/2) Human nature is good (Mencius). One grows into spontaneous unselfishness by nourishing inclination on its natural line of development, but sinks into selfishness if the growth is thwarted or starved. This doctrine, although not needed to justify moral behaviour, is important to Mencius because it reunites Heaven and man, assures us that in behaving morally we are not cutting ourselves off from the cosmic order.

(4/3) Human nature is bad (Hsün-tzu). The individual’s natural desires conflict with each other and with other men’s, but spontaneous unselfishness follows extension of awareness to other viewpoints as in 4/1. Recognising that conflicting desires frustrate one another, one spontaneously desires to reconcile them; the sage successfully trains them to harmonise with one another, and with other men’s.

(5) How is the sage moved to act from other viewpoints?

(5/1) He is moved equally on behalf of all (Mohism).

(5/2) He prefers kin to strangers (Confucianism).

(5/3) He prefers self to others (Yangism). The preference is a matter of degree; the pure egoism of acting solely on behalf of self seems not to be represented in the tradition.

(5/4) He responds fluidly without distinctions and classifications, and so without constant preferences (Taoism).

(6) How does the sage bring the ignorant into harmony with the wise?

(6/1) He educates the educable by the refining of custom through ceremony (Confucianism), or by teaching them to distinguish the socially beneficial from the harmful (Mohism), or by training them to unlearn distinctions (Taoism).

(6/2) He simplifies life to a degree manageable even in relative ignorance. By reducing the range of desirable things one can have small communities of voluntarily co-operating villagers (Shen-nung, Lao-tzu, the Chuang-tzu Primitivist).

(6/3) He constricts and steers desires and dislikes by reward and punishment, and so enforces obedience to the sage ruler (Legalism).

(7) What is the relation between Heaven and man, between the Way of spontaneous process within and outside man and the Way of human morality?

(7/1) They harmonise within a universal Way. For Yin-Yang thinking, this is shown by correlating the five moral norms of man with the Five Processes of cosmology.

(7/2) They are one in the spontaneity of human nature, which is good (Mencius).

(7/3) Human nature is bad; train natural inclination to goodness by following the Way proper to man, not the Way of Heaven (Hsün-tzu).

(7/4) Man departs from Heaven by channelling his spontaneity through self-made divisions and classifications; unlearn them and return to the course which is from Heaven (Taoism).

No thinker in this tradition objectivises the spontaneous in man, as a morally neutral inclination to be utilised or checked in the service of ends chosen independently, by deducing from rational principles or by an Existentialist leap in the dark. To do so would lead to a quite different problematic, that of post-Kantian philosophy in the West. Is it a limitation of Chinese thought that it overlooked the approach which seems natural to ourselves? It may be more profitable to ask the questions from the opposite direction. 

How did I as a Westerner get trapped into pretending that I can fully objectivise the spontaneous in myself, shrink myself to a point of rational Ego pursuing ends independent of my spontaneous goals, observing unmoved even my own emotions? 

What have I gained from following a line of thought which first detached supposedly rational ends from the goals of inclination, then failed to discover any rational grounds for them? 

I may indeed choose duty against present inclination, but am I not even then choosing the course which I spontaneously prefer in the perhaps rare moments when I can bring myself to see clearly from other people’s viewpoints?

[………………..such extremely good questions you ask there, Angus.]

And as a bonus for you, dedicated reader, I’ll append a sardonic piece of commentary on the Zhuangzi by Yuan Hongdao (fl. 1600) — in its excoriating way, it also provides a fine summary of Chinese thought.

Between heaven and earth there is nothing that is free of rights and wrongs.
The world is a city of rights and wrongs.
The body and mind are a house of rights and wrongs.
Wisdom, stupidity, worthiness, and worthlessness are the fruits of rights and wrongs.
All of history is a deserted battlefield of rights and wrongs.

The people of the world drown and float in rights and wrongs, wrongs and rights, clinging to their rotting remnants, like fat insects dangling from the ends of branches.
They either follow along with whatever they happen to see or bark back like dogs at whatever they happen to hear.
Thus, they hand their minds over to their own habits and their mouths to the crowd, angry when others are angry, praising when others praise—for these are the rights and wrongs of the ordinary man in the street.

To support the ways of old and use them to make judgments on the present, to strive for sagacity and correct foolishness, to disdain the common and praise the elegant—these are the rights and wrongs of the man of culture.
To hide away in remote valleys, running toward purity and avoiding defilement—these are the rights and wrongs of the hermit in the wilderness.
To investigate names against realities, critique hollow honors, esteem regulation and responsibility, find fault with empty absurdities—these are the rights and wrongs of the Legalists. 
To be rooted in ancient deeds of Humanity and Responsibility and narrate them forward, distinguish between the sage-king Yao and the tyrant Jie, model themselves on Zisi and Mencius, praise true kings and condemn dictators—these are the rights and wrongs of the Confucians.
To dislike fullness and prefer retreat, to cut off wisdom and discard sagacity—these are the rights and wrongs of the Daoists.
To pursue quiescence and the extinction of passions, take joy in compassion and renunciation, praise discipline and reject lust and rage — these are the rights and wrongs of the Buddhists.

Through these different paths and diverse doors their contending courses are put forth, and even an ocean of ink could never exhaust their writings.
Alas! Right and wrong run amok through the minds and dispositions of people, and they cling to these as Truth.
All the theories and assessments made by the worthies and sages, Confucians and Mohists, are ultimately rooted in nothing more than this.

Excerpted from Brook Ziporyn’s Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings: With selections from traditional commentaries