Parmenides in Szechuan

During WWII the capital of Nationalist China was Chungking (Chongqing) in Szechuan (Sichuan), a historic refuge for contenders for the Chinese throne. These were not good times for the Nationalists — Japan controlled much of China and large areas were under Communist control — and ultimately they retreated still further to Taiwan. This was unsurprising, since over the centuries Szechuan has more often been a last-ditch retreat than a jumping-off point. At the end of the war, rather oddly, they ended up in possession only of Taiwan, the least important and last-acquired of the Chinese provinces and one which, by the time the Nationalists arrived, had been under Japanese control for more than five decades.

Among the Nationalists were three philosophers: Ch’en K’ang (Chen Kang), Fang Tung-mei (Fang Dongmei), and Hao Wang (sic). Ch’en was well-established and had already published in German and English on the Plato’s Parmenides, while the other two still had their careers ahead of them. Fang went on to be an important public intellectual in Taiwan and wrote several books in English, and Wang migrated to the U.S. and became an important figure in mathematical logic, and Kurt Gödel’s literary executor.

During the war years Ch’en devoted himself to an annotated translation of the Parmenides, Fang wrote a 900-page two-volume work on one of the most abstruse of the Chinese Buddhist philosophical schools, Huayen (Japanese “kegon”). Wang’s activities are not known to me, but judging by his later career, while he was in Chungking he was immersing himself in abstruse and abstract areas of Western mathematical logic.

This seems odd, but shouldn’t. Philosophy has always served as a timeless comfort for those trapped in nightmares of history, and in fact even the historian Fernand Braudel, who lived under German domination on the other end of Eurasia, has admitted that his own choice to study the history of the longue duree rather than evenementielle history had something to do with his own need to escape from the nightmare contemporary French history had become. (An escape which Marcel Mauss and Marcel Granet, for example, were not allowed to find).

On this page I will assemble citations which are, in this sense, more or less relevant to WWII Chungking. Perhaps these citations will be useful for someone who wants to escape their own historical reality into abstruse philosophical questions. At one time I hoped to work these concepts into a coherent argument, but increasingly it seems that my works will consist mostly of interesting scraps of citations which I have succeeded in accumulating in the course of my wasted life.

Whateverthis page lhas ies in a few pervasive themes: Chinese vs. Western ways of thinking, analysis vs. synthesis, clarity vs. inclusiveness, and purity vs. mixture.

Note. Is it possible that Chuang Tzu (before 286 B.C.) was actually influenced (perhaps indirectly) by Plato (before 347 B.C.)? Alexander the Great reached NW India and Central Asia about 320 B.C., and there was a definite philosophical exchange between the Greeks and the Indians. But the difficult Silk Road route to China would not be routinely travelled for another two centuries, and while there was some passage back and forth, it was probably not either by Chinese or Indians, and still less likely by philosophers of any sort.


Zhuangzi (Chuang tzu), tr. Watson, p. 241:

Master Tung-kuo asked Chuang Tzu, “This thing called the Way (Dao) — where does it exist?
Chuang Tzu said, “There’s no place it doesn’t exist.”
“Come,” said Master Tung-kuo, “you must be more specific!”
“It is in the ant.”
“As low a thing as that?”
“It is in the panic grass.”
“But that’s lower still!”
“It’s in the tiles and shards.”
“How can it be so low?”
“It is in the piss and shit!”
Master Tung-kuo made no reply.

Ch’i Wu Lun, Watson, p. 43:
We have already become one, so how can I say anything? But I have just said that we are one, so how can I not be saying something? The one and what I said about it make two, and two and the original one make three. If we go on in this way, then even the cleverest mathematician can’t tell where we’ll end, much less the ordinary man.

“Imputed Words”, Watson, p. 304:
As long as I do not say anything about them, they are a unity. But the unity and what I say about it have ceased to be a unity; what I say and the unity have ceased to be a unity……beginning and end are part of a single ring and no one can comprehend its principle. This is called Heaven the Equalizer, which is the same as the Heavenly Equality.


Plato, Parmenides #130c, Cornford, p. 82 (Ch’en pp. 50-58):

Parmenides: Are you also puzzled, Socrates, about cases that might be thought absurd, such as hair or mud or dirt or any other trivial and undignified objects? Are you doubtful whether or not to assert that each of these has a separate Form distinct from things like those we handle?

Young Socrates: Not at all; in these cases the things are just the things we see; it would surely be too absurd to suppose that they have a Form. All the same, I have sometimes been troubled by a doubt whether what is true in one case may not be true in all. Then, when I have reached that point, I am driven to retreat, for fear of tumbling into a bottomless pit of nonsense. Anyhow, I get back to the things which we just now were speaking of as having Forms, and occupy my time with thinking about them.

Parmenides: That is because you are still young, and philosophy has not yet taken hold of you as firmly as I believe it will some day. You will not despise any of these objects then; but at present your youth makes you still pay attention to what the world will think. (In the notes to his Chinese translation, Ch’en makes no mention of the parallel in Chuang Tzu ):

Parmenides #166c, tr. Cornford p. 244:
“To this we may add the conclusion: it seems that, whether there is or is not a One, both that One and the Other alike are and are not, and appear and do not appear to be, all manner of things in all manner of ways, with respect to themselves and to one another.


H. te Velde, Seth, the God of Confusion (citing W. B. Kristenson, Symbool en Werkelijkheid, , p. 96-7)
p. 1:
W. B. Kristenson once remarked, that the supposition that the origin of a phenomenon is simpler and more easily understood than that which proceeds from it, is untenable. Every origin in itself is already a complex phenomena, sometimes of an even more mysterious nature than that which it is supposed to explain.


Paul Halmos, Naive Set Theory:
Nothing contains everything or, more spectacularly, there is no universe.


D. C. Lau, Tao Te Ching, pp. xvii-xviii:
….Now if we wish to characterize the Tao, we have to use such terms and yet none of them is appropriate, for if the Tao is responsible for the strong being strong it is no less responsible for the weak being weak. It is argued that in order to be responsible for the strong being strong the Tao must, in some sense, be itself strong also; and yet it would not be true to describe it as strong because as it is equally responsible for the weak being weak it must, in some sense, be itself weak as well. Thus we can see that no term can be applied to the Tao because all terms are specific, and the specific, is applied to the Tao, will impose a limitation on its range of function. And the Tao that is limited in its function can no longer serve as the Tao that sustains the manifold universe.

….According to Plato, the objects of the sensible world are unreal to the extent that it can be said, at the same time, of any one of them that it is both A and not-A. There is no object in this world, no matter how round, of which we cannot say, at the same time, that it is not round. Therefore it fails to be truly round and so truly real. The forms, on the other hand, are truly real because it is nonsense to say of the Form of Roundness that it is not round. What in Plato qualifies the Forms for reality is precisely that which would disqualify the Tao from being the immutable Way.

Plato’s view results in a plurality of Forms, each distinct in character from all others, while in the Taoist view there can be, and is, only one Tao. The advantage seems to rest with the Taoist, as Plato was, in the end, unable to rest satisfied with a plurality of Forms and had to bring in the Form of the Good as a unifying principle, though how this unification was contrived is not at all clear. Again, Plato’s insistence that of anything real we must be able to make a statement to the exclusion of its contradictory seems to stem from his assumption that the totally real must be totally knowable.


Fang Tung-mei (Thomé), “The Problem of Unity in the Philosophy of Plato” in Creativity in Man and Nature, Linking Press, Taipei, 1980.

p. 191:
We have observed that the teleological viewpoint is exceedingly prominent in his early theory of Idea. The particular things aim at the Idea, and Ideas again at the Idea of Good. Now logical necessity requires that the things vile and paltry, such as mud, dirt, and the like, also aim at their idea. The dirty things aim at the Idea of dirtiness and endeavor to become more and more dirty. Again, everything dirty, evil, mean, valueless, etc., together with their correspondent Ideas, all aim at another sun which is dark, dirtiest, and the source of all evils.

p. 193
We may certainly find many opposites in an individual. For example, a king may in fact be both just and unjust, wise and foolish, temperate and covetous, brave and coward. But nothing is more absurd than to assert that the ideal king (the so-called “Philosopher King”) too is both just and unjust, wise and foolish, etc.


Brumbaugh, R.S., Plato on the One, Yale, 1961, p. 15.
“If we add the good, the just, and the beautiful to the hypotheses, we have a coherent picture of the structure of the intelligible universe. If we do not add them, we have a dizzy multiplicity of antinomies.”


Siu, R.G.H, Ch’i: A Neo-Taoist Approach to Life, pp. 44-5:
“Since virtual presences have as real an effect as real presences for many purposes, those nations with the greatest capacities for the virtual also possess the greatest potential for power and influence. Conversely, those nations which emphasize real presence to not fare so well materially; their drive for progress is greatly attenuated….. nostalgia notwithstanding, the world is rapidly shedding its orientation toward real presences and going over to the virtual side of the ledger.”


Gudmensen, Wittgenstein and Buddhism,
pp. 6-7 (speaking of Ayer on Russell):
The criterion for the simplicity of an object lies in the simplicity of the properties which are attributable to it. We have already seen that a difficulty arises from the fact that, with a little ingenuity, we can represent any property as a conjunction or disjunction of other properties. ….

Chang, Garma C.C., The Buddhist Teaching of Totality
p. 74:
“Selfhood (Svabhava) Denotes a self-sufficient and self-subsistent entity; it suggests qualities of independence, determinateness, and indivisibility. Is there anything in the world we know possessing these qualities?”

p. 93: “Thatness = beingness = ‘is-ness’ = pure existence = the actuality of a thing = ‘it-is-there-ness’ = the act of existing = divine ground = universal substratum = Brahman = Being of beings.” Note, the Buddhist stand on the intuitive feeling of Being or thatness is diametrically opposed to that of the Upanishads and Aquinas. Instead of glorifying this ‘beingness’ Buddhism believes that this intuitive grasping of being, or actuality, is an expression of men’s deep clinging and attachment.


Vlastos, G., Platonic Studies, Princeton, 1973
p. 75:
He got these results from a degrees-of-reality theory, when all he needed was a kinds-of-reality theory…..the differences between particulars and universals [are better seen] if one expects in advance that both will be equally “real” in their different ways.

p. 56:
If Plato has understood his own theory better in these and other ways, he might have saved his readers some unprofitable misinterpretations and spared himself some quite gratuitous errors. For instance, he could have shown us that his Forms are not meant to be ‘more real’ in every possible way. Thus, would he not have been the first to agree that, if what we want is a good night’s sleep, the ordinary, bedroom variety bed is considerable more real?


From Mathematics to Philosophy, pp.1-2:
“The central bias or dogma [of Wang’s own thought] is what might vaguely be called ‘substantial factualism’ or perhaps ‘anthromorphic magnifactualism’. The underlying belief is in the overwhelming importance of existing knowledge for philosophy. We know more about what we know than we know how we know what we know. We know relatively better what we believe than what the ultimate justifications of our belief are. That we know what we know is an amazing brute fact and, of all possible knowledge, what is known is the most easily accessible and it is rich enough to fertilize the most interesting philosophy of knowledge at each historical period. …..

It is necessary to point out at the outset certain ambiguities and the consequent limitation of the vague position of substantial factualism. In its general conception it is not intended to apply exclusively to knowledge in the exact sciences. We are also interested in less exact knowledge and less clearly separated-out gross facts.

p. 16:
The preference for the more mechanical in philosophy is related to the idolatry of ‘clarity’. What is meant is local clarity comparable to the listing of historical dates rather than a global clarity as one would speak of a clear overview of history. Many of have been brought up to think of such clarity as a minor virtue which becomes a primary concern only after we have given up looking for the important, either because we are in despair or because we have succeeded and are currently engaged in a a careful exposition of what we have. To elevate local clarity to the status of the dominating goal of philosophy can appeal only to those who have been successfully indoctrinated.

p. 51:
In some lectures at Oxford in 1955, I attempted to plead the case of mathematical logic to a group of philosophers. I have since then come to doubt many of my enthusiastic assertions, not only because mathematical logic has become a more technical subject but also for the reason that, insofar as it has been influential in philosophy, I’m not sure that the influences have been good ones.

p. 57:
The excessive emphasis on formal systems seems unwarranted. The prize example is the formalizing of intuitive concept of a mathematical procedure is not accomplished by using formal systems. …. In the philosophical direction, there are not many recent examples of successful considerations by constructing formal systems. … There is no reason to believe that the present stage of mathematical logic will continue to be central for philosophy…. Certainly the later Wittgenstein thought that mathematical logic was a bad influence both in philosophy and in mathematics.

p. 335:
Philosophers tend to live and work in academic communities, which are often institutions based on medieval ideas. Ivory towers remain dominated by the medieval interpretation of the Greek distinction between the practical life and the contemplative life. Scholasticism and abstention from judging on large practical issues require a justification. It cannot be denied that there is an intimate and mutual dependence of theory and practice. To comfort oneself , one tries to believe that the contemplative-practical distinction is sound, and that, since there are many worthwhile things in life, each individual has a right to select what best suits him, which might be contemplation…..

p. 344-5:
In a well-established field, the rules of work are rigid, the judgements of merits are fairly objective and uniform, the ability required is quite specific and well-defined. In an ill-established field, standards are confusing, rules of work are more flexible, and there is constantly the uneasy feeling that one may be asking the wrong question…..

p. 348:
One main difference between Wittgenstein and most contemporary Anglo-American academic philosophers would seem to be the indulgence of the latter in clever, small arguments clouded with all sorts of extraneous detail…..

p. 353:
There are different conceptions of philosophy, and people come to an interest in philosophy along diverse paths. The basic conflict is between the requirements of rigor and comprehensiveness. More specifically, there is a schism between nature and human life as two aspects of the subject matter of philosophy. While it seems promising to preserve at least a semblance of rigor in dealing with nature and the exact sciences, philosophy, to be comprehensive and, in fact, to justify its claims to our attention (for the majority of people) must concern itself with the practical direction of life.

A basic belief of Husserl is that he has found a method by which we can gradually obtain absolute knowledge and establish philosophy as a rigorous science. In contrast, many people would put greater emphasis on what we now know and try to separate out more stable parts of our actual knowledge. The recognition of stable gross facts suggests a mixed position which distinguishes basic concepts and principles from those which are more dependent on particular historical circumstances…..

Citing Carnap: ” ‘I had expected that in the conversations with these physicists on these problems, we would reach, if not an agreement, then at least a clear mutual understand ‘ing. On this, however, we did not succeed in spite of our serious efforts, chiefly, it seems, because of great differences in point of view and language.’

To a neutral observer, this would appear to be a very damaging criticism of Carnap’s approach to philosophy with its declared intention of respecting science as it is.”

p. 381

Chang, Garma C.C., The Buddhist Teaching of Totality, Penn State, 1977.

Chen Chung-huan, “On the Parmenides of Plato”, Classical Quarterly, o.s. XXXVIII.

————- “The Problem of Homonymon in Plato’s Theory of Ideas”, Continent Magazine, Taipei, IX-10.

————- “The Problem of Unity and the Concept of Substance”, Continent Magazine, Taipei, III-5.

————-[Chinese translation of Parmenides] Commercial Press, Beijing, 1982. (Written in Chungking during WWII).

———— “What does Lao Tzu mean by the term ‘Tao'”. Tsing Hua Journal of Chinese Studies, Vol. 4, #2, 1964, pp. 150-61.

Cornford, Francis (tr), Plato and Parmenides, Bobbs-Merrill, 1957

Fang Tung-mei (Thomé), Creativity in Man and Nature, Linking Press, Taipei, 1980, “The Problem of Unity in the Philosophy of Plato”, pp. 181-197.

Fang Tung-mei (Thomé), Hua-yen Tsung Chieh-hsueh, Taipei, 1981.

Girardot, Norman, Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism, California, 1988.

Gudmunsen, Chris, Wittgenstein and Buddhism, Macmillan, 1977.

Halmos, P.R., Naive Set Theory, Springer, 1960.

Lau, D.C., The Tao Te Ching, U. Hawai’i, 1982.

Siu, R.G.H., The Portable Dragon, MIT, 1981.

Siu, R.G.H., Ch’i, A Neo-Taoist Approach to Life, MIT, 1974.

Smullyan, Raymond, The Tao is Silent, Harper, 1992/77.

Te Velde, H., Seth, God of Confusion, Brill, 1977.

Vlastos, G., Platonic Studies, Princeton, 1973.

Wang, Hao, From Mathematics to Philosophy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974.

Wang, Hao, Beyond Analytic Philosophy: Doing Justice to What We Know. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. Paperback edition, 1987.

Watson, Burton, tr., Chuang Tzu, Columbia, 1968.