Skip to main content

Humanity and Nature in Chinese Thought

Enrollment is Closed

About This Course

We make ethical or behaviour guiding right / wrong judgments all the time but have you ever wondered where Ethics comes from, what it is about and why it is important? This course provides an introduction to traditional Chinese ethical thought and focuses on the pervasive contrast in the way Chinese and Westerners think about ethical guidance or guidance concerning what is right and what is wrong, good or bad.  Traditional Western orthodoxy uses the metaphor of a law – in its most familiar popular form, the command of a supernatural being backed by a threat of eternal punishment or reward – to explain ethical guidance. The Classical Chinese philosophers by contrast were all naturalists. They talked about ethical guidance using a path metaphor – a natural dào.

We will look at two rival directions this natural dào model took in ancient China. The first direction views ethical paths as generated from human sources such as human history and past social practices. The other Confucian version views guidance as arising from a distinctly human guiding organ, something like a combination of our faculties of heart and mind. This organ issues the right/wrong or this/not-that judgements naturally. This internal map to moral choices branches, like a plant, as we mature. The alternative to human-based naturalism in China treated normative guidance as natural in a broader sense, such as the dào of water or one guided by what is beneficial vs harmful. Finally, we will take a brief look at a development after the classical period that resulted from the invasion of the more super-naturalist, Indo-European way of thinking about guidance – Medieval Chinese Buddhism.

Although Chinese concepts will be the focus of our discussion, all the content of this course is intended to be accessible to beginner students. For those who are beginners in Philosophy, we will include a brief introduction to the ideas of logic that further shape the Western metaphor of a law and help us understand its role in Western ethics, science and psychology so you can better understand the different ways these two philosophical metaphors explain where norms of behaviour come from, what they are about and why they are important.

What you'll learn

  • Describe various conceptions of the relation between humanity and nature presented in classical Chinese philosophical thought
  • Critically examine these conceptions and identify their strengths and weaknesses
  • Reflect on the relation between humanity and nature
  • Demonstrate interpretive, analytical and argumentative skills



Course Staff

Course Staff Image #1

Chad Hansen

Chad Hansen is Chair Professor of Chinese Philosophy, Emeritus at the University of Hong Kong. He has lived in Hong Kong off and on for almost three decades stretching back to the early 1960s. His research has focused on Chinese theory of language and logic (Language and Logic in Ancient China, 1983) and how the concepts used in understanding language and the 心xīn heart-mind informed Classical Chinese ethical discourse (A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought, 1992), and led to a reassessment of Daoism (Laozi’s Tao Te Ching: The Art of Harmony, 2009). He is past president of the Australasian Society of Asian and Comparative Philosophy, former Chair of the board of the Faculty of Arts and of the Department of Philosophy at HKU. Before coming to the University of Hong Kong in 1991, he was Professor and University Scholar at the University of Vermont. Throughout his professional career, he has been invited to visiting positions at major universities around the world, including Stanford, UCLA, Michigan, Pittsburgh, Hawaii and the National University of Singapore.