Is There a Method to Wang’s Madness?

I’m currently in the middle of a translation of and paper on the 對作 dui zuo essay from Wang Chong’s 論衡 Lunheng, as I think this essay offers us an innovation on the use of 實 shi in connection with the truth or falstity of linguistic entities (sayings, 言 yan, or teachings).  After having trudged through the Lunheng a number of times, I think I can see a coherent theory of truth emerging, heavily involving the concept of shi as something like “actual properties”.  Wang then appears to think of shi as expressing properties belonging to sayings or teachings (or anything which is truth-apt, which for Wang is more than just linguistic entities, as it is for the classical philosophers).

This much is straightforward, I think, and give arguments for it in the paper I’m working on.  What is less clear to me is the purpose of the large number of essays devoted to application of Wang’s method of appraising teachings (I talk about this method in my paper “A Reappraisal of Wang Chong’s Critical Method Through the Wenkong Chapter”, JCP, Dec. 2007).  He explains in dui zuo:

論衡九 “虛” 三 “增” 所以使俗人務實誠也。“In the Lunheng the nine chapters on “falsehoods” and the three chapters on “exaggerations” have the purpose of causing the common people to apply effort to achieving truth and sincerity.”

Now, I’m generally most interested in the philosophical argument in particular texts, but this strikes me as just strange.  Here in the dui zuo chapter and also in the 問孔 wen kong chapter, Wang outlines a method for appraising the truth or acceptability of sayings and teachings.  These sections are relatively short in comparison to the chapters he mentions in the above passage, and the other parts of the massive Lunheng which consist of criticism after criticism.  Michael Nylan argues that Wang was mainly concerned with offering every criticism he could think of in order to both show how smart he was, and to beat up on the “common view” of things because he had a chip on his shoulder due to being passed over for official promotion.  There may be something to this, and Wang does often write in that scrappy and confrontational class-underdog manner I’m very familiar with in its contemporary American guise.  Still, I can’t believe that’s all there is to the long lists of criticisms of his many chapters, especially because he is so careful and focused in certain places, such as in the dui zuo and wen kong.  This is not simply the work of a guy pissed off that he wasn’t getting sufficient attention.

This leads me to wonder if Wang Chong though there was some link between his listing of criticisms and the leading of the “common people” to apply effort to discover truth(s).  We might think that the method for appraising sayings and teachings alone would be enough, and a proof of the usefulness of this method would be sufficient for Wang’s stated purpose.  However, if we are charitable we might see something different going on here.  Wang may have seen the specific arguments and criticisms he made in the various Lunheng chapters as themselves efficacous in bringing about the desired concern for truth and sincerity (實 shi and 誠 cheng) in the people.  But if this is the case, how did Wang think these lists of criticisms could be effective in this way?  This is the question I’m currently struggling with…

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