Manyul Im’s Chinese Philosophy Blog

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Argument and Meta-Discourse

Over on Facebook, Stephen Walker and Robert Hymes got me thinking about meta-discourse in early China. Stephen imagined someone in China asking, or perhaps demanding, “Where are the arguments?” Robert suggested that it is perhaps impossible in classical Chinese to say “arguments” in the intended sense, so that someone might know what is being asked or demanded of him. (My thanks to them for stimulating the rest of this post. Maybe they will join in the discussion.)

I had a few initial responses to this, but I wanted to open up the discussion to others as well. Here are my thoughts:

(A) It is hard to know what term from the classical Chinese meta-discourse about language and rhetoric could do all and only the work that “the argument” in contemporary discourse does.

(B) Of course, one wouldn’t have to use meta-discourse simply to ask for a reason, some pattern of reasoning, or some other thing that might answer to “Why do you say that?” in English. One equivalent of “Why do you say that?” is he yan 何言, or simply 何.

There is another locution, an 安, which introduces more ambiguity–generality?–that is used for example in this Zhuangzi passage about the “Happiness of Fish” (魚之樂):


Zhuangzi and Huizi wandered to a bridge over the Hao River. Zhuangzi said, “See how the small fish meander to and fro. This is the happiness of the fish.” Huizi replied “You are not a fish; how do you know the happiness of the fish?” “You are not I,” retorted Zhuangzi, “How do you know my not knowing the happiness of the fish?” “I am not you,” conceded Huizi, “so I certainly do not know what you know. But you are certainly not a fish, so your not knowing the happiness of the fish is settled.” “Let’s return to the original question” suggested Zhuangzi. “You asked me whence I know the happiness of the fish. That shows that you already knew what I knew when you asked me. I know it from my vantage over the Hao.”

This is an interesting passage because Zhuangzi is depicted, I think, as being aware of the ambiguity of an 安; his answer at the end turns on interpreting Huizi’s question, not as “how do you know?”, which is what Huizi seems to intend, but as “from where do you know?”, (安 being one way to ask for the location of something in classical Chinese). That makes me also think:

(C) One could be aware of the different sorts of things someone is asking for with he 何, an 安, and other similar lexical items, without having an explicit/precise/unambiguous meta-discourse term for those sorts of things. Maybe one of those sorts of things Zhuangzi and others were aware of was “argument.”



January 15, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Hermeneutics | 10 Comments