China Seminar: Mind-Body Dualism in Early China: A Large-Scale Corpus Analysis

Professor Edward Slingerland of the University of British Columbia to give a talk

Mon, February 14, 2011 | Meyerson Conference Room, WCH 4.118

3:30 PM - 5:00 PM

China Seminar: Mind-Body Dualism in Early China: A Large-Scale Corpus Analysis

One frequently cited feature of Chinese thought—or "Eastern" thought more generally—is its supposedly “holistic” conception of the self, in contrast to the dualist West. If the strong versions of such claims are true, Chinese holism would represent a significant challenge to arguments concerning the innateness and universality of mind-body "folk" dualism being advanced by contemporary cognitive scientists, as well as hypotheses concerning possible connection between folk dualism, religious belief, and prosociality.

This talk will present the results of a keyword-focused coding project focused on the word xin (“heart-mind”) in the pre-Qin Dynasty (pre-221 B.C.E.) Chinese textual corpus. Coders characterized each instance of xin by noting what powers it possesses, what metaphors are used to conceptualize it, and features of the xin’s relationship to the body, other bodily organs, or other components of the self. The aim was to provide an overview of pre-Qin conceptions of xin that would be relatively unbiased by any particular pre-existing theories, as opposed to the sort of “cherry- picking” approach to textual evidence that is more typical in the  humanities. The final coding data is also broken down by historical  sub-period and individual texts to  capture historical trends in changing conception of the xin and  differences between individual  thinkers/textual compilers.

Our results strongly support the claim that early Chinese thought was characterized by a qualitative contrast between body and mind—a contrast that becomes more pronounced over the course of the pre-Qin period. However, this dualism is clearly not of the Cartesian variety: the various words for “body” and the word for  “mind” in Chinese do not mark two sides of scalpel-sharp, perfectly clear divide between mind and body—or “higher” cognitive abilities  residing in the “mind” as opposed to lower ones located in the body—but rather two qualitatively distinct points of  attraction on  a spectrum, with some intermediate abilities or features potentially falling on one side of the line or the other  depending upon pragmatic context. This talk will discuss how,  along with other historical evidence and some recent work in the  cognitive science of culture, these results suggest that the claim that human beings are “natural Cartesians” (Paul Bloom) needs to  be slightly modified: folk dualism would appear to be “sloppy” or  “weak” rather  than consistently Cartesian. The conclusion will discuss the particular challenges presented by this sort of analysis project, both logistical and conceptual, as well as its  potential applicability to a wide variety of issues of interest to  students of ancient and contemporary cultures.

Edward Slingerland is a Professor at the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia, a Canada Research Chair in Chinese Thought and Embodied Cognition, and Co-Director for the Centre for the Study of Human Evolution, Cognition and  Culture (

Sponsored by: Center for East Asian Studies

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