Philosophy of Mind in China
Conceptual and Theoretical Matters
Historical Developments: The Classical Period
Historical Developments: Han Cosmology
Historical Developments: The Buddhist Period
Historical Developments: The Neo-Confucian Period


Introduction: Conceptual and Theoretical Matters
Classical Chinese theory of mind is similar to Western folk psychology in that both mirror their respective background view of language. They differ in ways that fit those folk theories of language. The core Chinese concept is xin (the heart-mind). As the translation suggests, Chinese folk psychology lacked a contrast between cognitive and affective states ([representative ideas, cognition, reason, beliefs] versus [desires, motives, emotions, feelings]). The xin guides action, but not via beliefs and desires. It takes input from the world and guides action in light of it. Most thinkers share those core beliefs.
Herbert Fingarette argued that Chinese (Confucius at least) had no psychological theory. Along with the absence of belief-desire explanation of action, they do not offer psychological (inner mental representation) explanations of language (meaning). We find neither the focus on an inner world populated with mental objects nor any preoccupation with questions of the correspondence of the subjective and objective worlds. Fingarette explained this as reflecting an appreciation of the deep conventional nature of both linguistic and moral meaning. He saw this reflected in the Confucian focus on li (ritual) and its emphasis on sociology and history rather than psychology. The meaning, the very existence, of a handshake depends on a historical convention. It rests on no mental acts such as sincerity or intent. The latter may accompany the conventional act and give it a kind of aesthetic grace, but they do not explain it.
Fingarette overstates the point, of course. It may not be psychologistic in its linguistic or moral theory, but Confucianism still presupposes a psychology, albeit not the familiar individualist, mental or cognitive psychology. Its account of human function in conventional, historical society presupposes some behavioral and dispositional traits. Most Chinese thinkers indeed appear to presuppose that humans are social, not egoistic or individualistic. The xin coordinates our behavior with others. Thinkers differed in their attitude toward this natural social faculty. Some thought we should reform this tendency and try harder to become egoists, but most approved of the basic goodness of people. Most also assumed that social discourse influenced how the heart-mind guides our cooperation. If discourse programs the heart-mind, it must have a dispositional capacity to internalize the programming.
Humans accumulate and transmit conventional dao-s (guiding discourses?ways). We teach them to our children and address them to each other. The heart-mind then executes the guidance in any dao it learns when triggered (e.g., by the sense organs). Again thinkers differed in their attitude toward this shared outlook. Some thought we should minimize or eliminate the controlling effect of such conventions on human behavior. Others focused on how we should reform the social discourse that we use collectively in programming each other's xin. Typically, thinkers in the former group had some theory of the innate or hard-wired programming of the xin. Some in the latter camp had either a blank page or a negative view of the heart-mind's innate patterns of response.
For some thinkers, the sense organs delivered a processed input to the heart-mind as a distinction: salty and sour, sweet and bitter, red or black or white or green and so forth. Most had thin theories, at best, of how the senses contributed to guidance. While it is tempting to suppose that they assumed the input was an amorphous flow of qualia that the heart-mind sorted into categories (relevant either to its innate or social programming). However, given the lack of analysis of the content of the sensory input, we should probably conservatively assume they took the na?ve realist view that the senses simply make distinctions in the world. We can be sure only that the xin did trigger reactions to discourse-relevant stimuli.
Reflecting the theory of xin, the implicit theory of language made no distinction between describing and prescribing. Chinese thinkers assumed the core function of language is guiding behavior. Representational features served that prescriptive goal. In executing guidance, we have to identify relevant things in context. If the discourse describes some behavior toward one's elder, one needs a way correctly to identify the elder and what counts as the prescribed behavior. Correct action