International Journal of Humanities and Social Science

ISSN 2220-8488 (Print), 2221-0989 (Online) 10.30845/ijhss

Chinese Writing and

Thought: A Historical-Sociological Critique of a Longstanding Thesis

Raymond W.K. Lau

For centuries, numerous Western scholars have argued that Chinese writing is concrete-bound and hence inhibitive of abstract thought in pre-modern China, while alphabetic writing is abstract, and hence enabling of abstract thought. This longstanding and popular view, while originating in Europe, has also had considerable impact in Chinese and other non-Western academic circles. The present paper devises a special-purpose historical-sociological framework in order to examine, in a theoretically-informed way, writing’s invention and subsequent development in Mesopotamia/East Mediterranean area and China, on the basis of which the concretebound- versus-abstract distinction between different writing systems is debunked. The claim concerning the supposed effects of writing system on mode of thinking is then shown to be theoretically vacuous, logically illegitimate, and empirically ill-informed concerning ancient Chinese thoughts. The present paper’s analysis complements that of scholars who show that the ancient Chinese language was not (grammatically or otherwise) inhibitive of abstract logical thought and reasoning.

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