Abstract Thinking and Thought in Ancient Chinese and Early Greek

Dissertation, University of Michigan (1996)

Abstract
Many studies in comparative philosophy have noted that Chinese philosophy did not concern itself with abstractions to the same extent as did the Greek tradition. While Plato and Aristotle dealt extensively with definitions of abstract terms and theories of abstract universals, the contemporaneous pre-Qin Chinese thinkers showed a general indifference to such questions. The Chinese language, with its lack of morphological features, had no way of marking abstract nouns, and many sinologists have speculated that this aspect of the language may have hindered abstract thinking in China. This study examines the way in which abstractions are handled in both ancient Greek and classical Chinese, and surveys theories of language in the ancient Greek and Chinese texts in order to explore how aspects of the two languages may have had an effect on their approaches to abstraction. It is shown that differences in the way information is handled in the early Chinese and Greek languages may have had an effect on the degree of meta-linguistic awareness of the Chinese thinkers; specifically, the highly-inflected nature of Greek may have served to focus cognitive attention to the semantic domain of abstractions, whereas for the Chinese the existence of such a class of abstractions was less salient. Evidence from discussions of language in Plato and Aristotle are compared with the theory of language expounded in the pre-Qin Neo-Mohist Canon to study differences in the way the two philosophical traditions treated abstract entities. It is concluded that, while the two different language typologies represented by Greek and Chinese do not effect thinking , differences in the degree of meta-linguistic awareness they afford speakers can have significant effects on thought
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