Chinese philosophers, Fung insisted, have tended to avoid the abstract, showing little interest in metaphysics or pure logic, pouring their energies instead into developing more down-to-earth, practical political arguments. They were, he suggested, ‘concerned chiefly with society and not with the universe’, more preoccupied with defining how to live than in discovering how things are. Or, as another Chinese philosopher Y.L. Chin has put it, ‘Chinese philosophers were all of them different shades of Socrates’.

Not just geography, but language too, Fung suggested, made Chinese philosophy distinct. The Chinese corpus contains few great philosophical tracts. There is little to compare with Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, or Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason. Chinese philosophy tends rather to be poetic, aphoristic, suggestive. The very language of the Chinese, many argue, has lent itself to aphoristic philosophy and discouraged long, finely argued theses. A written language based on the alphabetic system, and with a tight grammatical fabric, as came eventually to be used in the West, provides useful material from which to fashion an argumentative treatise. A language that is constructed from symbolic characters that are not susceptible to considerations of singular or plural, or of past, present and future tenses, and most of which can equally be a noun, a verb, and adjective or an adverb, but whose connotation changes according to the other symbols alongside which it sits in a sentence, is necessarily more ambiguous and allusive in meaning. Chinese language is, the philosopher Lawrence Wu suggests, ‘an excellent tool for poetry but not for systematic or scientific thought’. There is in Chinese philosophy ‘profound insights, brilliant aphorisms, interesting metaphors, but few elaborate arguments’.

John Gray:

The calls of birds and the traces left by wolves to mark off their territories are no less forms of language than the songs of humans. What is distinctively human is not the capacity for language. It is the crystallization of language in writing… Writing creates an artificial memory, whereby humans can enlarge their experience beyond the limits of one generation or one way of life. At the same time it has allowed them to invent a world of abstract entities and mistake them for reality.

…It is scarcely possible to imagine a philosophy such as Platonism emerging in an oral culture. It is equally difficult to imagine it in Sumeria. How could a world of bodiless Forms be represented in pictograms? How could abstract entities be represented as the ultimate realities in a mode of writing that still recalled the world of the senses?

It is significant that nothing resembling Platonism arose in China. Classical Chinese script is not ideographic, as used to be thought; but because of what A.C. Graham terms its ‘combination of graphic wealth with phonetic poverty’ it did not encourage the kind of abstract thinking that produced Plato’s philosophy. Plato was what historians of philosophy call a realist — he believed that abstract terms designated spiritual or intellectual entities. In contrast, throughout its long history, Chinese philosophy has been nominalist — it has understood that even the most abstract terms are only labels, names for the diversity of things in the world. As a result, Chinese thinkers have rarely mistaken ideas for facts.