Zhang Dongsun (張東蓀; also transliterated as Chang Tung-sun)
(1886–1973) was a Chinese philosopher, public intellectual and
Japan as an overseas student in his youth, Zhang studied
the epistemology and ethics of Immanuel Kant, and attempted to
Confucianism along Kantian lines. He took part in famous
debates about the relative merits of "science and metaphysics,"
allying himself with the then fashionable metaphysics of Henri
Bergson. He was equally well-known, as an exponent of the philosophy
of Bertrand Russell, whom he accompanied on a tour of
China in 1920.
A prominent exponent of Chinese liberalism, he became a powerful
influence in the
China Democratic League in its original incarnation
as a non-Communist "third force" grouping opposed to the dictatorship
of the Guomindang (
Kuomintang or KMT) under Chiang Kai-shek.
In addition to the Second World War era, Zhang also taught the
students at National
Tsinghua University in the 1930s and the 1940s.
From 1935 to 1937, Zhang founded and presided the literary and
philosophical monthly periodical Wenzhe yuekan(文哲月刊) in
Zhang veered towards acceptance of the inevitability of Communist
victory and took government positions after the establishment of the
People's Republic of
China in 1949. However his earlier passionate
devotion to intellectual freedom and searching critiques of
Marxism–Leninism made him an object of suspicion, obliging him to
live in obscurity and in constant fear of persecution. During the
early years of the PRC, he served in the new government as a member of
the Central governmental committee, as counsellor at the Ministry of
Culture and in various other high-level positions, while maintaining
his position as professor of philosophy at National Tsinghua
University. However, In 1951-1952, he provided secret information to
the US, which was fighting
China directly in Korea, therefore losing
his position and rights in the government and was expelled by the
China Democratic League soon after. At the beginning of the
Cultural Revolution, he was hospitalized in the Beijing Railroad
Hospital due to his poor health, and was later imprisoned due to
his information leak committed nearly 20 years ago. He died in
Although Zhang was intellectually silenced after the 1940s, he had
been an extraordinarily active writer until that time. Many of his
works from that period still survive, testifying to Zhang's importance
as one of the most penetrating and innovative Chinese thinkers of the
20th Century. His most important philosophical works include Science
and Philosophy (科學與哲學), ABC of Philosophy (哲學ABC), ABC
of Psychoanalysis (精神分析學ABC), Moral Philosophy
(道德哲學),On the Culture and Philosophy of East and West
(讀東西文化及其哲學), Epistemology (認識論), A new
Formulation of Pluralistic Epistemology (多元認識論重述), What
is Philosophy (哲學究竟是什麼), Knowledge and Culture
(知識與文化), Thought and Society (思想與社會) and
Rationality and Democracy (理性與民主).
Pluralistic epistemology represents the core of Zhang's philosophical
system. It is derived from a revised version of Kantian philosophy. To
justify such an epistemology, he proposed a new cosmology:
panstructuralism (fanjiagouzhuyi 泛架構主義) An important
assumption of his theory of knowledge is the neo-realistic view that
the external world exists independently of our consciousness, and that
there is no exact correlation between external phenomena and our
comprehension of them. However, the external cause for our sensation
is not a substance, but the order or structure of the external world.
What is transmitted to us through our sensory impressions is a
modification of this external order. Similarly, the discovery of the
Theory of Relativity was important only in terms of recognizing
structural laws, and not in terms of recognising any new essences in
nature or the cosmos.
Plural epistemology advocates the view that sense impressions are
non-being. Therefore, they are without a position in the ontological
sense; they do not possess any 'ontological status'. All beings exist
in a process of constant change that manifests itself in a
never-ending modification of structural connections, and the growth
and decline of the qualities of the "essence" of particular entities.
According to Zhang, our consciousness can only recognize certain
aspects of these manifest changes. However, this refers not only to
the level of our perception and comprehension; according to Zhang, the
structured order of relations is all that really exists in the cosmos.
The relation between the external world and our subjectivity is
interactive and correlative.
Combining the Buddhist idea of non-substance with a theory of
evolution, Zhang held that the structures of the universe, although
empty, are in evolution, and new kinds of structure may emerge due to
changes in the combination of various structures. His most valuable
contributions are also to be found in his endeavours to elaborate the
dialectical aspect of Aristotelian logic, to connect logic, language
and methods of disputation, and to discover principles and formal
elements of the logic of linguistic pragmatism. His investigations of
the influence of Chinese language on the development of Chinese
philosophy are a very influential and pioneering work. He was the
first philosopher who exposed correlative thinking as a main
characteristic of Chinese philosophy and analogical argument as a
specific Chinese mode of inference.
^ Z. Zhu, The Case of Zhang Dongsun, first published in History of
Beijing Police Force, 1992
^ 杨奎松 (2013).
Guilin: 广西师范大学出版社. pp. 1–9.
^ 徐友春 (2007). 民国人物大辞典. Hebei:
河北人民出版社. ISBN 978-7-202-03014-1.
Xinyan Jiang, "Zhang Dongsun: Pluralist Epistemology and Chinese
Philosophy" in Chung-Yin Cheng and Nicholas Bunnin, eds., Contemporary
Chinese Philosophy, Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.
Key-chong Yap, "Zhang Dongsun" in Antonio S. Cua, ed., Encyclopedia of
Chinese Philosophy, London: Routledge, 2001.
Rošker, Jana S., "The Abolishment of Substance and Ontology: a New
Interpretation of Zhang Dongsun's Pluralistic Epistemology," in
"Synthetis philosophica International Ed.", 2009, Vol. 24, No 1,
Rošker, Jana S., "Zhang Dongsun’s 張東蓀 (1886 - 1973) plural
epistemology (duoyuan renshi lun多元認識論)," in Rošker, Jana
S., "Searching for the Way – Theory of Knowledge in pre-Modern and
Modern China," Hong Kong: Chinese Univ