Writing and Reflection on Elementary Actions and Professional Practices

Writing and Reflection on Elementary Actions and Professional Practices: The Chinese Mohist Canon and Its Counterparts in Greek Science

Other involved Scholars: 

William Boltz (University of Washington)

The research activity is devoted to the analysis of a unique source of ancient Chinese thinking, the so-called Mohist Canon, written around 300 B. C. In a series of working meetings continuing earlier work in the context of the project on Mental Models in the History of Knowledge, it is attempted to reinterpret the Mohist Canon from a comparative and contextual perspective. It turns out that the text can be understood as documenting reflections on elementary and practical forms of knowledge, such as intuitive knowledge on spatial arrangements and natural processes, and knowledge obtained in the handling of mechanical and optical devices or instruments for measurement and astronomical observation. Theoretical reflection is documented in the text through the definition of general terms, the consistent use of terminology, and the resolution of apparent paradoxes or explanation of unexpected phenomena. Texts handed down from Greek antiquity, such as Aristotle’s Physics or Euclid’s Elements equally document a reflection on elementary and practical spatial knowledge. The comparison of the Chinese and the Greek cases suggests that the existence of a culture of disputation and the related emergence of argumentative text traditions is a general precondition for this kind of theoretical reflection. While the Mohist tradition ceased with the rise of the Qin Empire at the end of the third century B. C., the later tradition of the Greek texts reveals the different potential of theoretical reflections on elementary experiences, as exemplified by Aristotle, on one hand, and on the use of drawing instruments (compass and ruler), as exemplified by Euclid, on the other.