Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Wang Ch'ung (philosopher)
Wang Ch'ung (or Wang Chong; 王充) (27–97 C.E.) was a Chinese philosopher during the Han Dynasty who developed a rational, secular, naturalistic, and mechanistic account of the world and of human beings. His main work was the Lun-Heng (論衡) (first translated in 1911 as Balanced Enquiries, and since as Fair Discussions, or Critical Essays).
Life and thought
Unusually for a Chinese philosopher of the period, Wang Ch'ung spent much of his life in non-self-inflicted poverty; indeed, he was said to have studied by standing at bookstalls. A superb memory, however, allowed him to become very well-versed in the Chinese classics, and he eventually reached the rank of District Secretary, a post which he soon lost as a result of his combative and anti-authoritarian nature.
Also unusual is the fact that Wang cannot be placed in any particular school of Chinese philosophy. Rather, he reacted to the state that philosophy had reached in China by his day. Daoism had long before degenerated into superstition and magic, and Confucianism had been the state religion for some 150 years. Confucius and Lao Zi were worshipped as gods, omens were seen everywhere, belief in ghosts was almost universal, and feng shui had begun to rule people's lives. Wang's response to all this was derision, and he made it his vocation to set out a rational, naturalistic account both of the world and of the human place in it. He was also a friend of Ban Gu, the historian who contributed to the Book of Han (Hanshu).
At the centre of his thought was the denial that Heaven has any purpose for us, whether benevolent or hostile. To say that Heaven provides us with food and clothing is to say it acts as our farmer or tailor — an obvious absurdity. We humans are insignificant specks in the universe and cannot hope to effect changes in it, and it is ludicrous arrogance to think that the universe would change itself just for us.
Wang insisted that the words of previous sages should be treated critically, and that they were often contradictory or inconsistent. He criticized scholars of his own time for not accepting this, as well as what he called the popular acceptance of written works. He believed that the truth could be discovered, and would become obvious, by making the words clear, and by clear commentary on the text.
One example of Wang Chung's rationalism is his argument that thunder must be created by fire or heat, and is not a sign of the heavans being displeased. He argued that repeatable experience and experiment should be tried before adopting the belief that divine will was involved.
He was equally scathing about the popular belief in ghosts. Why should only human beings have ghosts, he asked, not other animals? We're all living creatures, animated by the same vital principle. Besides, so many people have died that their ghosts would vastly outnumber living people; the world would be swamped by them. “People say that spirits are the souls of dead men. That being the case, spirits should always appear naked, for surely it is not contended that clothes have souls as well as men.” Lun-Heng
Wang was just as rational and uncompromising when it came to his attitude to knowledge. Beliefs require evidence, just as actions require results. Anyone can prattle nonsense, and they'll always be able to find people to believe it (especially if they can dress it up in superstitious flummery). Careful reasoning and experience of the world are what are needed, however.
Bernhard Karlgren called his style straightforward and without literary pretensions; in general, modern western writers have noted that Wang Ch'ung was one of the most original thinkers of his time, even iconoclastic in his opinions, and that he gained popularity in the 20th century because of the correspondances between his ideas and those which would later evolve in Europe. His writing is praised for being clear and well ordered. However, because there was no functioning scientific method or larger scientific discourse in his time, his formulations can seem alien to the modern eye — to some readers, even as peculiar as the superstitions that he was rejecting. Despite this barrier to entry into his work, however, he gained a certain fame, though mostly after his death, and had an effect on what is sometimes called ‘neo-Daoism’ — a reformed Daoist philosophy which developed a metaphysics that abandoned much of the superstition and mysticism into which Daoism had fallen in favour of a more rational, naturalistic approach.
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