It is an assumed view in Chinese philosophy that the grammatical differences between English or Indo-European languages and classical Chinese explain some of the differences between the Western and Chinese philosophical discourses. Although some philosophers have expressed doubts about the general link between classical Chinese philosophy and syntactic form of classical Chinese, I discuss a specific hypothesis, i.e., the mass-noun hypothesis, in this essay. The mass-noun hypothesis assumes that a linguistic distinction such as between the singular terms and the predicates is sufficient to justify or necessarily leads to a specific ontological distinction such as the distinction between the particular and the universal. I argue that one cannot read off semantic properties simply from syntactic ones and hence the syntactic differences do not automatically translate into the semantic differences between languages, that the syntactic features of Chinese nouns do not have explanatory significance in explaining why the particular-universal problem does not arise in the classical period of Chinese philosophy, and that the part-whole ontology allegedly informed by the mass-noun-like semantics does not provide a natural or intuitive picture of the language-world relation.
Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy, 10(3), 311-340