Archives For Daoism

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, s.w.fuller@warwick.ac.uk.

Fuller, Steve. “‘China’ As the West’s Other in World Philosophy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 1-11.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-42x

A man practices Taijiquan at the Kongzi Temple in Nanjing.
Image by Slices of Light via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This essay was previously published in the Journal of World Philosophy, their Summer 2018 issue.

Bryan Van Norden’s Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto draws on his expertise in Chinese philosophy to launch a comprehensive and often scathing critique of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy. I focus on the sense in which “China” figures as a “non-Western culture” in Van Norden’s argument. Here I identify an equivocation between what I call a “functional” and a “substantive” account of culture.

I argue that Van Norden, like perhaps most others who have discussed Chinese philosophy, presupposes a “functional” conception, whereby the relevant sense in which “China” matters is exactly as “non-Western,” which ends up incorporating some exogenous influences such as Indian Buddhism but not any of the Western philosophies that made major inroads in the twentieth century. I explore the implications of the functional/substantive distinction for the understanding of cross-cultural philosophy generally.

Dragging the West Into the World

I first ran across Bryan Van Norden’s understanding of philosophy from a very provocative piece entitled “Why the Western Philosophical Canon Is Xenophobic and Racist,”[1]  which trailed the book now under review. I was especially eager to review it because I had recently participated in a symposium in the Journal of World Philosophies that discussed Chinese philosophy—Van Norden’s own area of expertise—as a basis for launching a general understanding of world philosophy.[2]

However, as it turns out, most of the book is preoccupied with various denigrations of philosophy in contemporary America, from both inside and outside the discipline. The only thing I will say about this aspect of the book is that, even granting the legitimacy of Van Norden’s complaints, I don’t think that arguments around some “ontological” conception of what philosophy “really is” will resolve the matter because these can always be dismissed as self-serving and question-begging.

What could make a difference is showing that a broader philosophical palette would actually make philosophy graduates more employable in an increasingly globalized world. Those like Van Norden who oppose the “Anglo-analytic hegemony” in contemporary philosophy need to argue explicitly that it results in philosophy punching below its weight in terms of potential impact. That philosophy departments of the most analytic sort continue to survive and even flourish, and that their students continue to be employed, should be presented as setting a very low standard of achievement.

After all, philosophy departments tend to recruit students with better than average qualifications, while the costs for maintaining those departments remain relatively low. In contrast, another recent book that raises similar concerns to Van Norden’s, Socrates Tenured (Frodeman and Briggle 2016),[3] is more successful in pointing to extramural strategies for philosophy to pursue a more ambitious vision of general societal relevance.

Challenging How We Understand Culture Itself

But at its best, Taking Back Philosophy forces us to ask: what exactly does “culture” mean in “multicultural” or “cross-cultural” philosophy? For Van Norden, the culture he calls “China” is the exemplar of a non-Western philosophical culture. It refers primarily—if not exclusively—to those strands of Chinese thought associated with its ancient traditions. To be sure, this arguably covers everything that Chinese scholars and intellectuals wrote about prior to the late nineteenth century, when Western ideas started to be regularly discussed. It would then seem to suggest that “China” refers to the totality of its indigenous thought and culture.

But this is not quite right, since Van Norden certainly includes the various intellectually productive engagements that Buddhism as an alien (Indian) philosophy has had with the native Confucian and especially Daoist world-views. Yet he does not seem to want to include the twentieth-century encounters between Confucianism and, say, European liberalism and American pragmatism in the Republican period or Marxism in the Communist period. Here he differs from Leigh Jenco (2010),[4] who draws on the Republican Chinese encounter with various Western philosophies to ground a more general cross-cultural understanding of philosophy.

It would appear that Van Norden is operating with a functional rather than substantive conception of “China” as a philosophical culture. In other words, he is less concerned with all the philosophy that has happened within China than with simply the philosophy in China that makes it “non-Western.” Now some may conclude that this makes Van Norden as ethnocentric as the philosophers he criticizes.

I am happy to let readers judge for themselves on that score. However, functional conceptions of culture are quite pervasive, especially in the worlds of politics and business, whereby culture is treated as a strategic resource to provide a geographic region with what the classical political economist David Ricardo famously called “comparative advantage” in trade.

But equally, Benedict Anderson’s (1983) influential account of nationalism as the construction of “imagined communities” in the context of extricating local collective identities from otherwise homogenizing imperial tendencies would fall in this category. Basically your culture is what you do that nobody else does—or at least does not do as well as you. However, your culture is not the totality of all that you do, perhaps not even what you do most of the time.

To be sure, this is not the classical anthropological conception of culture, which is “substantive” in the sense of providing a systematic inventory of what people living in a given region actually think and do, regardless of any overlap with what others outside the culture think and do. Indeed, anthropologists in the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries expected that most of the items in the inventory would come from the outside, the so-called doctrine of “diffusionism.”

Thus, they have tended to stress the idiosyncratic mix of elements that go into the formation of any culture over any dominant principle. This helps explain why nowadays every culture seems to be depicted as a “hybrid.” I would include Jenco’s conception of Chinese culture in this “substantive” conception.

However, what distinguished, say, Victorians like Edward Tylor from today’s “hybrid anthropologists” was that the overlap of elements across cultures was used by the former as a basis for cross-cultural comparisons, albeit often to the detriment of the non-Western cultures involved. This fuelled ambitions that anthropology could be made into a “science” sporting general laws of progress, etc.

My point here is not to replay the history of the struggle for anthropology’s soul, which continues to this day, but simply to highlight a common assumption of the contesting parties—namely, that a “culture” is defined exclusively in terms of matters happening inside a given geographical region, in which case things happening outside the region must be somehow represented inside the region in order to count as part of a given culture. In contrast, the “functional” conception defines “culture” in purely relational terms, perhaps even with primary reference to what is presumed to lie outside a given culture.

Matters of Substance and Function

Both the substantive and the functional conception derive from the modern core understanding of culture, as articulated by Johann Gottfried Herder and the German Idealists, which assumed that each culture possesses an “essence” or “spirit.” On the substantive conception, which was Herder’s own, each culture is distinguished by virtue of having come from a given region, as per the etymological root of “culture” in “agriculture.” In that sense, a culture’s “essence” or “spirit” is like a seed that can develop in various ways depending on the soil in which it is planted.

Indeed, Herder’s teacher, Kant had already used the German Keime (“seeds”) in a book of lectures whose title is often credited with having coined “anthropology” (Wilson 2014).[5] This is the sense of culture that morphs into racialist ideologies. While such racialism can be found in Kant, it is worth stressing that his conception of race does not depend on the sense of genetic fixity that would become the hallmark of twentieth-century “scientific racism.” Rather, Kant appeared to treat “race” as a diagnostic category for environments that hold people back, to varying degrees, from realizing humanity’s full potential.

Here Kant was probably influenced by the Biblical dispersal of humanity, first with Adam’s Fall and then the Noachian flood, which implied that the very presence of different races or cultures marks our species’ decline from its common divine source. Put another way, Kant was committed to what Lamarck called the “inheritance of acquired traits,” though Lamarck lacked Kant’s Biblical declinist backdrop. Nevertheless, they agreed that a sustainably radical change to the environment could decisively change the character of its inhabitants. This marks them both as heirs to the Enlightenment.

To be sure, this reading of Kant is unlikely to assuage either today’s racists or, for that matter, anti-racists or multiculturalists, since it doesn’t assume that the preservation of racial or cultural identity possesses intrinsic (positive or negative) value. In this respect, Kant’s musings on race should be regarded as “merely historical,” based on his fallible second-hand knowledge of how peoples in different parts of the world have conducted their lives.

In fact, the only sense of difference that the German Idealists unequivocally valued was self-individuation, which is ultimately tied to the functional conception of culture, whereby my identity is directly tied to my difference from you. It follows that the boundaries of culture—or the self, for that matter—are moveable feasts. In effect, as your identity changes, mine does as well—and vice versa.

Justifying a New World Order

This is the metaphysics underwriting imperialism’s original liberal capitalist self-understanding as a global free-trade zone. In its ideal form, independent nation-states would generate worldwide prosperity by continually reorienting themselves to each other in response to market pressures. Even if the physical boundaries between nation-states do not change, their relationship to each other would, through the spontaneous generation and diffusion of innovations.

The result would be an ever-changing global division of labor. Of course, imperialism in practice fostered a much more rigid—even racialized—division of labor, as Marxists from Lenin onward decried. Those who nevertheless remain hopeful in the post-imperial era that the matter can ultimately be resolved diagnose the problem as one of “uneven development,” a phrase that leaves a sour aftertaste in the mouths of “post-colonialists.”

But more generally, “functionalism” as a movement in twentieth-century anthropology and sociology tended towards a relatively static vision of social order. And perhaps something similar could be said about Van Norden’s stereotyping of “China.” However, he would be hardly alone. In his magisterial The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, a book which Van Norden does not mention, Randall Collins (1998)[6] adopts a similarly functionalist stance. There it leads to a quite striking result, which has interesting social epistemological consequences.

Although Collins incorporates virtually every thinker that Chinese philosophy experts normally talk about, carefully identifying their doctrinal nuances and scholastic lineages, he ends his treatment of China at the historical moment that happens to coincide with what he marks as a sea change in the fortunes of Western philosophy, which occurs in Europe’s early modern period.

I put the point this way because Collins scrupulously avoids making any of the sorts of ethnocentric judgements that Van Norden rightly castigates throughout his book, whereby China is seen as un- or pre-philosophical. However, there is a difference in attitude to philosophy that emerges in Europe, less in terms of philosophy’s overall purpose than its modus operandi. Collins calls it rapid discovery science.

Rapid discovery science is the idea that standardization in the expression and validation of knowledge claims—both quantitatively and qualitatively—expedites the ascent to higher levels of abstraction and reflexivity by making it easier to record and reproduce contributions in the ongoing discourse. Collins means here not only the rise of mathematical notation to calculate and measure, but also “technical languages,” the mastery of which became the mark of “expertise” in a sense more associated with domain competence than with “wisdom.” In the latter case, the evolution of “peer review” out of the editorial regimentation of scientific correspondence in the early journals played a decisive role (Bazerman 1987).[7]

Citation conventions, from footnotes to bibliographies, were further efficiency measures. Collins rightly stresses the long-term role of universities in institutionalizing these innovations, but of more immediate import was the greater interconnectivity within Europe that was afforded by the printing press and an improved postal system. The overall result, so I believe, was that collective intellectual memory was consolidated to such an extent that intellectual texts could be treated as capital, something to both build upon and radically redeploy—once one has received the right training to access them. These correspond to the phases that Thomas Kuhn called “normal” and “revolutionary” science, respectively.

To be sure, Collins realizes that China had its own stretches in which competing philosophical schools pursued higher levels of abstraction and reflexivity, sometimes with impressive results. But these were maintained solely by the emotional energy of the participants who often dealt with each other directly. Once external events dispersed that energy, then the successors had to go back to a discursive “ground zero” of referring to original texts and reinventing arguments.

Can There Be More Than One Zero Point?

Of course, the West has not been immune to this dynamic. Indeed, it has even been romanticized. A popular conception of philosophy that continues to flourish at the undergraduate level is that there can be no genuine escape from origins, no genuine sense of progress. It is here that Alfred North Whitehead’s remark that all philosophy is footnotes to Plato gets taken a bit too seriously.

In any case, Collins’ rapid discovery science was specifically designed to escape just this situation, which Christian Europe had interpreted as the result of humanity’s fallen state, a product of Adam’s “Original Sin.” This insight figured centrally in the Augustinian theology that gradually—especially after the existential challenge that Islam posed to Christendom in the thirteenth century—began to color how Christians viewed their relationship to God, the source of all knowing and being. The Protestant Reformation marked a high watermark in this turn of thought, which became the crucible in which rapid discovery science was forged in the seventeenth century. Since the 1930s, this period has been called the “Scientific Revolution” (Harrison 2007).[8]

In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, all appeals to authority potentially became not sources of wisdom but objects of suspicion. They had to undergo severe scrutiny, which at the time were often characterized as “trials of faith.” Francis Bacon, the personal lawyer to England’s King James I, is a pivotal figure because he clearly saw continuity from the Inquisition in Catholic Europe (which he admired, even though it ensnared his intellectual ally Galileo), through the “witch trials” pursued by his fellow Protestants on both sides of the Atlantic, to his own innovation—the “crucial experiment”—which would be subsequently enshrined as the hallmark of the scientific method, most energetically by Karl Popper.

Bacon famously developed his own “hermeneutic of suspicion” as proscriptions against what he called “idols of the mind,” that is, lazy habits of thought that are born of too much reliance on authority, tradition, and surface appearances generally. For Bacon and his fellow early modern Christians, including such Catholics as Rene Descartes, these habits bore the mark of Original Sin because they traded on animal passions—and the whole point of the human project is to rise above our fallen animal natures to recover our divine birthright.

The cultural specificity of this point is often lost, even on Westerners for whom the original theological backdrop seems no longer compelling. What is cross-culturally striking about the radical critique of authority posed by the likes of Bacon and Descartes is that it did not descend into skepticism, even though—especially in the case of Descartes—the skeptical challenge was explicitly confronted. What provided the stopgap was faith, specifically in the idea that once we recognize our fallen nature, redemption becomes possible by finding a clearing on which to build truly secure foundations for knowledge and thereby to redeem the human condition, God willing.

For Descartes, this was “cogito ergo sum.” To be sure, the “God willing” clause, which was based on the doctrine of Divine Grace, became attenuated in the eighteenth century as “Providence” and then historicized as “Progress,” finally disappearing altogether with the rising tide of secularism in the nineteenth century (Löwith 1949; Fuller 2010: chap. 8).[9]

But its legacy was a peculiar turn of mind that continually seeks a clearing to chart a path to the source of all meaning, be it called “God” or “Truth.” This is what makes three otherwise quite temperamentally different philosophers—Husserl, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger—equally followers in Descartes’ footsteps. They all prioritized clearing a space from which to proceed over getting clear about the end state of the process.

Thus, the branches of modern Western philosophy concerned with knowledge—epistemology and the philosophy of science—have been focused more on methodology than axiology, that is, the means rather than the ends of knowledge. While this sense of detachment resonates with, say, the Buddhist disciplined abandonment of our default settings to become open to a higher level of state of being, the intellectual infrastructure provided by rapid discovery science allows for an archive to be generated that can be extended and reflected upon indefinitely by successive inquirers.

Common Themes Across Continents

A good way to see this point is that in principle the Buddhist and, for that matter, the Socratic quest for ultimate being could be achieved in one’s own lifetime with sufficient dedication, which includes taking seriously the inevitability of one’s own physical death. In contrast, the modern Western quest for knowledge—as exemplified by science—is understood as a potentially endless intergenerational journey in which today’s scientists effectively lead vicarious lives for the sake of how their successors will regard them.

Indeed, this is perhaps the core ethic promoted in Max Weber’s famous “Science as a Vocation” lecture (Fuller 2015: chap. 3).[10] Death as such enters, not to remind scientists that they must eventually end their inquiries but that whatever they will have achieved by the end of their lives will help pave the way for others to follow.

Heidegger appears as such a “deep” philosopher in the West because he questioned the metaphysical sustainability of the intellectual infrastructure of rapid discovery science, which the Weberian way of death presupposes. Here we need to recall that Heidegger’s popular reception was originally mediated by the postwar Existentialist movement, which was fixated on the paradoxes of the human condition thrown up by Hiroshima, whereby the most advanced science managed to end the biggest war in history by producing a weapon with the greatest chance of destroying humanity altogether in the future. Not surprisingly, Heidegger has proved a convenient vehicle for Westerners to discover Buddhism.

Early Outreach? Or Appropriation?

Finally, it is telling that the Western philosopher whom Van Norden credits with holding China in high esteem, Leibniz, himself had a functional understanding of China. To be sure, Leibniz was duly impressed by China’s long track record of imperial rule at the political, economic, and cultural levels, all of which were the envy of Europe. But Leibniz honed in on one feature of Chinese culture—what he took to be its “ideographic” script—which he believed could provide the intellectual infrastructure for a global project of organizing and codifying all knowledge so as to expedite its progress.

This was where he thought China had a decisive “comparative advantage” over the West. Clearly Leibniz was a devotee of rapid discovery science, and his project—shared by many contemporaries across Europe—would be pursued again to much greater effect two hundred years later by Paul Otlet, the founder of modern library and information science, and Otto Neurath, a founding member of the logical positivist movement.

While the Chinese regarded their written characters as simply a medium for people in a far-flung empire to communicate easily with each other, Leibniz saw in them the potential for collaboration on a universal scale, given that each character amounted to a picture of an abstraction, the metaphorical rendered literal, a message that was not simply conveyed but embedded in the medium. It seemed to satisfy the classical idea of nous, or “intellectual intuition,” as a kind of perception, which survives in the phrase, “seeing with the mind’s eye.”

However, the Chinese refused to take Leibniz’s bait, which led him to begin a train of thought that culminated in the so-called Needham Thesis, which turns on why Earth’s most advanced civilization, China, failed to have a “Scientific Revolution” (Needham 1969; Fuller 1997: chap. 5).[11] Whereas Leibniz was quick to relate Chinese unreceptiveness to his proposal to their polite but firm rejection of the solicitations of Christian missionaries, Joseph Needham, a committed Marxist, pointed to the formal elements of the distinctive cosmology promoted by the Abrahamic religions, especially Christianity, that China lacked—but stopping short of labelling the Chinese “heathens.”

An interesting feature of Leibniz’s modus operandi is that he saw cross-cultural encounters as continuous with commerce (Perkins 2004).[12]  No doubt his conception was influenced by living at a time when the only way a European could get a message to China was through traders and missionaries, who typically travelled together. But he also clearly imagined the resulting exchange as a negotiation in which each side could persuade the other to shift their default positions to potential mutual benefit.

This mentality would come to be crucial to the dynamic mentality of capitalist political economy, on which Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage was based. However, the Chinese responded to their European counterparts with hospitality but only selective engagement with their various intellectual and material wares, implying their unwillingness to be fluid with what I earlier called “self-individuation.”

Consequently, Europeans only came to properly understand Chinese characters in the mid-nineteenth century, by which time it was treated as a cultural idiosyncrasy, not a platform for pursuing universal knowledge. That world-historic moment for productive engagement had passed—for reasons that Marxist political economy adequately explains—and all subsequent attempts at a “universal language of thought” have been based on Indo-European languages and Western mathematical notation.

China is not part of this story at all, and continues to suffer from that fact, notwithstanding its steady ascendancy on the world stage over the past century. How this particular matter is remedied should focus minds interested in a productive future for cross-cultural philosophy and multiculturalism more generally. But depending on what we take the exact problem to be, the burden of credit and blame across cultures will be apportioned accordingly.

Based on the narrative that I have told here, I am inclined to conclude that the Chinese underestimated just how seriously Europeans like Leibniz took their own ideas. This in turn raises some rather deep questions about the role that a shift in the balance of plausibility away from “seeing with one’s own eyes” and towards “seeing with the mind’s eye” has played in the West’s ascendancy.

Conclusion

I began this piece by distinguishing a “substantive” and a “functional” approach to culture because even theorists as culturally sensitive as Van Norden and Collins adopt a “functional” rather than a “substantive” approach. They defend and elaborate China as a philosophical culture in purely relational terms, based on its “non-Western” character.

This leads them to include, say, Chinese Buddhism but not Chinese Republicanism or Chinese Communism—even though the first is no less exogenous than the second two to “China,” understood as the land mass on which Chinese culture has been built over several millennia. Of course, this is not to take away from Van Norden’s or Collins’ achievements in reminding us of the continued relevance of Chinese philosophical culture.

Yet theirs remains a strategically limited conception designed mainly to advance an argument about Western philosophy. Here Collins follows the path laid down by Leibniz and Needham, whereas Van Norden takes that argument and flips it against the West—or, rather, contemporary Western philosophy. The result in both cases is that “China” is instrumentalized for essentially Western purposes.

I have no problem whatsoever with this approach (which is my own), as long as one is fully aware of its conceptual implications, which I’m not sure that Van Norden is. For example, he may think that his understanding of Chinese philosophical culture is “purer” than, say, Leigh Jenco’s, which focuses on a period with significant Western influence. However, this is “purity” only in the sense of an “ideal type” of the sort the German Idealists would have recognized as a functionally differentiated category within an overarching system.

In Van Norden’s case, that system is governed by the West/non-West binary. Thus, there are various ways to be “Western” and various ways to be “non-Western” for Van Norden. Van Norden is not sufficiently explicit about this logic. The alternative conceptual strategy would be to adopt a “substantive” approach to China that takes seriously everything that happens within its physical borders, regardless of origin. The result would be the more diffuse, laundry list approach to culture that was championed by the classical anthropologists, for which “hybrid” is now the politically correct term.

To be sure, this approach is not without its own difficulties, ranging from a desire to return to origins (“racialism”) to forced comparisons between innovator and adopter cultures. But whichever way one goes on this matter, “China” remains a contested concept in the context of world philosophy.

Contact details: s.w.fuller@warwick.ac.uk

References

Bazerman, Charles. Shaping Written Knowledge. Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.

Collins, Randall. The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Frodeman, Robert; Adam Briggle. Socrates Tenured. Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016).

Fuller, Steve. Science: Concepts in the Social Sciences. Milton Keynes UK: Open University Press, 1997.

Fuller, Steve. Science: The Art of Living. Durham UK: Acumen, 2010.

Fuller, Steve. Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History. London: Routledge, 2015.

Harrison, Peter. The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Jenco, Leigh. Making the Political: Founding and Action in the Political Theory of Zhang Shizhao. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Jenco, Leigh; Steve Fuller, David Haekwon Kim, Thaddeus Metz, and Miljana Milojevic, “Symposium: Are Certain Knowledge Frameworks More Congenial to the Aims of Cross-Cultural Philosophy?” Journal of World Philosophies 2, no. 2 (2017): 82-145.

Löwith, Karl. Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of Philosophy of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949.

Needham, Joseph. The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1969.

Perkins, Franklin. Leibniz and China: A Commerce of Light. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Van Norden, Bryan. Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

Wilson, Catherine. “Kant on Civilization, Culture and Moralization,” in Kant’s Lectures on Anthropology: A Critical Guide. Edited by A. Cohen. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014: 191-210.

[1] Bryan Van Norden, “Western Philosophy is Racist,” (https://aeon.co/essays/why-the-western-philosophical-canon-is-xenophobic-and-racist; last accessed on May 10, 2018).

[2] See: Leigh Jenco, Steve Fuller, David Haekwon Kim, Thaddeus Metz, and Miljana Milojevic, “Symposium: Are Certain Knowledge Frameworks More Congenial to the Aims of Cross-Cultural Philosophy?” Journal of World Philosophies 2, no. 2 (2017): 82-145 (https://scholarworks.iu.edu/iupjournals/index.php/jwp/article/view/1261/128; last accessed on May 10, 2018).

[3] Robert Frodeman, and Adam Briggle, Socrates Tenured (Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016).

[4] Leigh Jenco, Making the Political: Founding and Action in the Political Theory of Zhang Shizhao (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[5] Catherine Wilson, “Kant on Civilization, Culture and Moralization,” in Kant’s Lectures on Anthropology: A Critical Guide, ed. A. Cohen (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 191-210.

[6] Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

[7] Charles Bazerman, Shaping Written Knowledge (Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987).

[8] Peter Harrison, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[9] Karl Löwith, Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of Philosophy of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949); Steve Fuller, Science: The Art of Living (Durham UK: Acumen, 2010).

[10] Steve Fuller, Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History (London: Routledge, 2015).

[11] Joseph Needham, The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1969); Steve Fuller, Science: Concepts in the Social Sciences (Milton Keynes UK: Open University Press, 1997).

[12] Franklin Perkins, Leibniz and China: A Commerce of Light (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Author Information: Val Dusek, University of New Hampshire, val.dusek@unh.edu.

Dusek, Val. “Antidotes to Provincialism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 5-11.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Wz

Please refer to:

Out on the streets of downtown Shanghai this March.
Image by keppt via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Bryan Van Norden’s book rightly castigates the exclusion or minimizing of non-Western philosophy in mainstream US philosophy curricula. I was shocked by the willful ignorance and arrogance of those such as able philosopher of biology, Massimo Pigliucci, whom, before reading the quote about Eastern thought, I highly respected. Van Norden is on target throughout with his criticism of Western professional philosopher’s dismissive provincialism. I only worry that his polemic, though accurately describing the situation, will not at all convert the unconverted. Calling the western philosophers who exclude non-Western philosophy “Trumpian philosophers” is both accurate and funny, but unlikely to make them more sympathetic to multi-cultural philosophy.

A Difficult History

Westerners until the last third of the twentieth century denied that there was any significant traditional Chinese science. Part of this was based on racial prejudice, but part of it was that by the nineteenth century, after the Opium War and the foreign concessions were made, Chinese science had degenerated, and superstitious aspects of such things as geomancy and astrology, rather than the earlier discoveries of geography and astronomy dominated.  Prior to the late 1950s for professional Western historians of science, and, until decades later (or even never) the public, scoffed at the idea of sophisticated traditional Chinese science. Chinese insight into astronomy, biology, and other fields was rejected by most people, including respectable historians of science.

The British biochemical embryologist and Marxist Joseph Needham over the second half of the twentieth century in the volumes of Science and Civilization in China gradually revealed the riches of Chinese knowledge of nature. There, is of course the issue of whether traditional Chinese knowledge of nature, and that of other non-Western peoples, often with the exception of Middle Eastern science, can be should be called science. If science is defined as necessarily including controlled experiments and mathematical laws, then Chinese knowledge of nature cannot be called science. Needham himself accepted this definition of science and made the issue of why China never developed science central to his monumental history.

However, Needham discovered innumerable discoveries of the Chinese of phenomena denied in Western science for centuries. Chinese astronomers recorded phenomena such as new stars (Novae) appearing, stellar evolution (change of color of stars), and sunspots in astronomy, None of these were recorded by ancient and medieval Western astronomers. Famously, modern astronomers have made use of millennium old Chinese recordings of novae to trace past astronomical history.

In China, the compass was known and detailed magnetic declination maps were made centuries before the West even knew of the compass. Geobotanical prospecting, using the correlation of plants with minerals in the soil, the idea that mountains move like waves, and on and on. Since field biology, observational astronomy, and historical geology in modern Western science usually do not involve experiments, and many contemporary philosophers of biology deny that there are biological laws, the “experiment and mathematical laws” definition of science may be too narrow.

An example of the chauvinist rejection of Chinese science, and of Needham’s monumental work is that of a respected Princeton historian, Charles Coulston Gillispie. In his review of the first volumes of Needham he warned readers not to believe the contents because Needham was sympathetic to the Communists. Ironically, in the review, Gillispie tended to dismiss applied science and praised the purely theoretical science supposedly unique to the West, accusing Needham of “abject betrayal of the autonomy of science.”

Also ironically, or even comically, in the margin of Gillispie’s reply, doubling down on the denunciation of Communism and defense of pure, non-materialist science was an advertisement recruiting guided nuclear missile scientists for Lockheed! One hopes, but doubts, that Gillispie was embarrassed by his review, as he made similar comments in his Edge of Objectivity, also suggesting that the Arabs and the Chinese could not be trusted with nuclear weapons as “we” can, with our superior moral values.

The Heights of Chinese Philosophy

Even decades after Needham’s magisterial sequence of volumes had been appearing, Cromer in an anti-multicultural book claims not only that China had no science, but that the Chinese had no interest in or knowledge of the world beyond China (neglecting the vast trade on the Silk Road during the ancient and medieval periods, amazingly varied Chinese imports during the Tang Dynasty, the voyages of exploration of Zheng He, the Three Jeweled Eunuch (perhaps a contradiction in terms), and the most complete map of the world before the 1490s (from Korea, but probably from Chinese knowledge and available in China).

Hopefully there will be a process of recognition of non-Western philosophy by American analytic philosophers of the sort that began fifty years earlier for Chinese knowledge of nature among historians. So far this has hardly happened.

One possibility for the integration of Asian philosophy into mainstream philosophy curricula is the integration of non-Western philosophy into the standard history of philosophy courses. One easy possibility of integration is including non-Western philosophy in the standard Ancient Philosophy and Medieval Philosophy curriculum. While teaching Ancient as well as Chinese philosophy in the last two decades I have (perhaps too often) drawn parallels between and contrasts of Greek and Chinese philosophy. However, very few students take both courses. Until this coming year Eastern philosophy was offered yearly, but not as a required part of the history sequence, and few students were in both courses, I worried whether these in-class comparisons fell mostly on deaf ears.

I have thought about the possibility of courses on ancient, medieval, and early modern philosophy including non-Western philosophy of the period. There are a couple of introductory philosophy anthologies, such as Daniel Bonevac’s, apparently now out of print, that include much non-Western philosophy. (Ironically, Bonevac is literally a “Trumpian philosopher,” in the sense of having supported Donald Trump.) Robert C. Solomon included discussion of some Chinese philosophy in his survey but shows total ignorance of modern research on Daoism, doubting that Laozi was an older contemporary of Confucius but rather at least one or two centuries later. Some ways a course that covered both Greek and Chinese philosophy could make comparisons between the two are suggested below. Of course, the usual, casual, comparison of the two involves an invidious contrast perhaps less strong than that of Pigliucci.

A Genuinely Modest Proposal

My proposal involves not introductory surveys but histories of philosophy from the Presocratics to the German romantics and early twentieth century philosophers.

Parallels between the Warring States philosophers and the Pre-Socratics have been noted by among others Benjamin Schwartz in The World of Thought in Ancient China. The Pre-Socratics’ statements have numerous parallels to those of Chinese philosophers of the same period. Qi has some parallels to the air of Anaximenes, in particular in terms of condensation as the source of objects. The Dao of Laozi, as source of all things, yet being indefinable and ineffable has resemblances to the Apeiron of Anaximander.

Of course, many of the paradoxes (that an arrow does not move, the paradox of metrical extension, that a length can be divided indefinitely, that an assemblage of infinitely small points can add up to a finite length) are almost identical with those of Zeno. Of course, the emphasis on Being in Western philosophy from Parmenides through Aristotle to Aquinas and other medieval contrasts most strongly with the emphasis on non-being in Laozi and its presence with less emphasis in Zhuangzi. West’s Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient has many evocative suggestions of influences of the East on the Presocratics. There is extensive work on the parallels and contrasts of the ethics of Mencius and that of Aristotle. The concept and role of the concept Qi has strong similarities to the Stoic notion of pneuma, as described, for instance in Sambursky’s Physics of the Stoics.

A.C. Graham in Disputers of the Dao argues that as the formal logical approaches of the early Wittgenstein, Russell, and logical positivism in the first half of the twentieth century gave way to the later Wittgenstein, and French deconstruction developed, these parts of Western philosophy more closely approximated to the approaches of traditional Chinese philosophy.

Shigehisa Kuriyama has provocatively and insightfully written on the comparison of traditional Chinese medicine and Greek Hippocratic medicine on the body. There have been many articles speculating on the relation of Greek skepticism being influenced by Eastern thought via Alexander’s invasion of India. Diogenes Laertius’s claims that Pyrrho (of later Pyrrhonian skepticism) went to India with Alexander where was influenced by the gymnosophists (“naked sophists”) he met there. C. Beckwith has argued that Phyrronism is a product of Buddhism. Jay Garfield, though thinking the influence question is a red herring, has written extensively and insightfully on the logical isomorphisms between Greek and Tibetan skeptical theses.

Buddhist logic of contradiction can be compared with and at least partially explicated by some twentieth century logics that incorporate contradictions as not illogical. These include presupposition logic as Buddhist. (Though a former colleague told me three people who worked on this died horrible deaths, one by cancer, another by auto accident, so I should avoid studying this area). Other twentieth century symbolic logic systems that allow contradictions as not fatal are Nicholas Rescher’s and Robert Brandom’s paraconsistent logic on applied to Eastern philosophy by Graham Priest, dialethic logic. One can also compare Pai-chang’s Zen monastic rules to the simultaneously developed ones of St. Benedict.

Several, both Western and Asian philosophers, have compared Chan Buddhist mysticism with that of Wittgenstein. Reinhardt May in Heidegger’s Hidden Sources has investigated influences of Heidegger’s readings of Helmut Wilhelm’s translations of Yi Qing and Dao De Jing. Eric Nelson, in his fascinating recent book has traced not only the recently more well-known use made by Heidegger, but also extensive use by Martin Buber, Hans Dreisch, and a number of less famous German philosophers of the early twentieth century.

Perhaps more controversial is the comparison made between the European medieval scholastics’ fusion of Christian ethics with Aristotelian cosmology and the medieval Chinese, so-called neo-Confucian scholastic fusion of Confucian ethics and politics with Daoist cosmology. One can compare the concept of li in the “neo-Daoist of dark learning” Wang Bi and more extensively in the neo-Confucians, most notably Xuzi, as Leibniz had suggested. Beyond parallels there have been provocative arguments that Buddhist means of argument, via the so-called Silk Road in Central Asia, issued in part of European scholastic technique. Certainly, a topic in early modern philosophy is Leibniz’s praise of the Yijing as binary arithmetic, and his claims about the similarity of Xuzi’s metaphysics and his own Monadology, with brief note of Nicholas Malebranche’s less insightful dialogue between a Chinese and a Christian philosopher.

The skyline of Shanghai, today one of the world’s leading cities.
Image by Alex and David Berger via Flickr / Creative Commons.

 

In western political philosophy the appeals to the superiority of Chinese society to that of Europe, or at least the existence of a well ordered and moral society without the Biblical God, by figures such as Montesquieu, Voltaire, Quesnay, Leibniz, Christian Wolff, and others, both using “China as a Model for Europe” as Maverick’s book is entitled, or as a means of satirizing European supposed morals and justice. The Chinese legalists, who were doing behavioral political science and Malthusian population theory of history over two millennia before Western political theorists did so, could be noted in a course in social philosophy that includes behavior political science.

Leibniz’s praise of the Yi as well as his extensive claims of similarity of Xuzi’s Li and Chi to his own form, substance, and monads. Also, Leibniz’s efforts of support for the Jesuit attempt to incorporate Confucian ceremonies into Catholic mass, and the Rites Controversy, detailed by David Mungello and others, deserve coverage in Early Modern courses.

There is a fascinating work by the child psychologist Alison Gopnik on possible connections that may have been made by Hume during his most creative period at La Fleche, where Descartes had studied long before, with missionaries who were familiar with Asian thought, particularly one who had lived in Siam.

In German romantic philosophy we find relatively little sophisticated treatment of Chinese philosophy (Witness Goethe’s fragmentary treatment of China.) However, there was a great reception of Indian philosophy among the German romantics. Schlegel, Schelling, and others absorbed ideas from Hinduism, not to mention Schopenhauer’s use of Buddhism. (Sedlar gives an elementary survey). In late nineteenth century philosophy there is the growing sympathy of Ernst Mach for Buddhism, as well as Nietzsche’s disputed attitudes toward Asian philosophy. Interestingly, Nietzsche copiously annotated his copy of Mach’s Analysis of Sensations, and offered to dedicate his Genealogy of Morals to Mach.

In twentieth century philosophy there have been numerous works of varying quality noting similarities between Wittgenstein’s approach to metaphysical questions and Chan Buddhism. There also are a number or works comparing Alfred North Whitehead to Buddhism.

Despite the severe criticisms that have been made of some best-selling popular treatments of the topic, I think there are significant parallels between some of the interpretations of quantum mechanics and some traditional Asian philosophies. I once had a testy exchange in print with the physicist and writer Jeremy Bernstein on this topic. His Trumpian reply was “Yogic, Schmogic.” A few decades later he wrote appreciatively of the Dali Llama’s attempt to relate Buddhism to quantum philosophy.

An Open Future for Education in Philosophy

I realize that there is always the danger of superficial comparisons between very different systems of thought, but I believe that much of the work I mention is not guilty of this. I also, realize, as a non-specialist, I have mentioned mainly works of comparison from the sixties through the eighties, and many more fine-grained scholarly articles have been produced in the last two decades.

I look forward to the integration of non-western philosophy into the core of the standard history of philosophy sequence, not just by supplementing the two or four-year sequence of history of philosophy courses with non-Western philosophy courses, but by including non-Western philosophy in the content of the history of philosophy of each period.

Contact details: val.dusek@unh.edu

References

Baatz, Ursula, “Ernst Mach: The Scientist as Buddhist?” in Ernst Mach: A Deeper Look, ed. J. T. Blackmoore, Springer, 2012.

Beckwith, Christopher I., Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia, Princeton, 2015.

Bernstein, Jeremy, Val Dusek, and Ed Gerrish, “A Cosmic Flow,” “The Reader Replies” with reply by Jeremy Bernstein, American Scholar, Autumn 1979, p. 572.

Bernstein, Jeremy, “Quantum Buddhists,” in Quantum Leaps, Harvard, 2009, pp. 27-52.

Bonevac, Daniel, and Stephen Phillips, eds. Introduction to World Philosophy: A Multicultural Reader, Oxford, 2009.

Cromer, Alan, Common Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science, Oxford, 1995.

Gillispie, Charles Coulston, “Prospects,” American Scientist 45 no. 2 (March, 1957), 169-176, and reply no. 4 (September 1957) 266A-272A.

Gillispie, Charles Coulston, The Edge of Objectivity, Princeton, 1959.

Gopnik, Allison, “Could David Hume Have Known about Buddhism?: Charles François Dolu, the Royal College of La Flèche, and the Global Jesuit Intellectual Network,” Hume Studies, vol. 35, nos. 1 & 2, 2009, pp. 5-28.

Graham, A. C. Disputers of the Dao, Open Court, 1979.

Hartshorne, Charles, et al, “Symposium on Mahayana Buddhism and Whitehead,” Philosophy East and West, vol. 25, no. 4, 1975, pp. 393-488.

Kuyiyama, Shigehisa, The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine, Zone Books, 2002.

Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm, Writings on China, trans. Daniel J. Cook and Henry Rosemont, Jr. Open Court, 1994.

Malebranche, Dialogue between a Christian Philosopher and a Chinese Philosopher, American Universities Press, 1980.

Maverick, Lewis A., China, A Model for Europe, Paul Anderson, 1949.

Mungello, David E. The Great Encounter of China and the West 1500-1800, 3d edn., Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009.

Needham, Joseph, Science and Civilization in China, Cambridge University Press, 1954 -.

Nelson, Eric S., Chinese and Buddhist Philosophy in Early Twentieth Century German Thought, Bloomsbury, 2017.

Priest, Graham, Beyond the Limits of Thought, Oxford, 2002.

Priest, Graham, One: Being an Investigation into the Unity of Reality and of its Parts, including the Singular Object which is Nothingness, Oxford, 2016.

Reinhardt May, Heidegger’s Hidden Sources: East Asian Influences on His Work, transl. Graham Parkes, Routledge, 1996.

Sambursky, Samuel, The Physics of the Stoics, Princeton University Press, 1959.

Schwartz, Benjamin I., The World of Thought in Ancient China, Harvard, 1989.

Sedlar, Jean, India in the Mind of Germany: Schelling, Schopenhauer, and Their Times, University Press of America, 1982.

Van Norden, Bryan, Preface by Jay L. Garfield, Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto, Columbia University Press, 2017.

West, M. L., Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient, Oxford University Press, 1971.

Author Information: Adam Riggio, SERRC Digital Editor, serrc.digital@gmail.com

Riggio, Adam. “Action in Harmony with a Global World.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 20-26.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Vp

Image by cornie via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Bryan Van Norden has become about as notorious as an academic philosopher can be while remaining a virtuous person. His notoriety came with a column in the New York Times that took the still-ethnocentric approach of many North American and European university philosophy departments to task. The condescending and insulting dismissal of great works of thought from cultures and civilizations beyond Europe and European-descended North America should scandalize us. That it does not is to the detriment of academic philosophy’s culture.

Anyone who cares about the future of philosophy as a tradition should read Taking Back Philosophy and take its lessons to heart, if one does not agree already with its purpose. The discipline of philosophy, as practiced in North American and European universities, must incorporate all the philosophical traditions of humanity into its curriculum and its subject matter. It is simple realism.

A Globalized World With No Absolute Hierarchies

I am not going to argue for this decision, because I consider it obvious that this must be done. Taking Back Philosophy is a quick read, an introduction to a political task that philosophers, no matter their institutional homes, must support if the tradition is going to survive beyond the walls of universities increasingly co-opted by destructive economic, management, and human resources policies.

Philosophy as a creative tradition cannot survive in an education economy built on the back of student debt, where institutions’ priorities are set by a management class yoked to capital investors and corporate partners, which prioritizes the proliferation of countless administrative-only positions while highly educated teachers and researchers compete ruthlessly for poverty wages.

With this larger context in mind, Van Norden’s call for the enlargement of departments’ curriculums to cover all traditions is one essential pillar of the vision to liberate philosophy from the institutions that are destroying it as a viable creative process. In total, those four pillars are 1) universal accessibility, economically and physically; 2) community guidance of a university’s priorities; 3) restoring power over the institution to creative and research professionals; and 4) globalizing the scope of education’s content.

Taking Back Philosophy is a substantial brick through the window of the struggle to rebuild our higher education institutions along these democratic and liberating lines. Van Norden regularly publishes work of comparative philosophy that examines many problems of ethics and ontology using texts, arguments, and concepts from Western, Chinese, and Indian philosophy. But if you come to Taking Back Philosophy expecting more than a brick through those windows, you’ll be disappointed. One chapter walks through a number of problems as examples, but the sustained conceptual engagement of a creative philosophical work is absent. Only the call to action remains.

What a slyly provocative call it is – the book’s last sentence, “Let’s discuss it . . .”

Unifying a Tradition of Traditions

I find it difficult to write a conventional review of Taking Back Philosophy, because so much of Van Norden’s polemic is common sense to me. Of course, philosophy departments must be open to primary material from all the traditions of the human world, not just the Western. I am incapable of understanding why anyone would argue against this, given how globalized human civilization is today. For the context of this discussion, I will consider a historical and a technological aspect of contemporary globalization. Respectively, these are the fall of the European military empires, and the incredible intensity with which contemporary communications and travel technology integrates people all over Earth.

We no longer live in a world dominated by European military colonial empires, so re-emerging centres of culture and economics must be taken on their own terms. The Orientalist presumption, which Edward Said spent a career mapping, that there is no serious difference among Japanese, Malay, Chinese, Hindu, Turkic, Turkish, Persian, Arab, Levantine, or Maghreb cultures is not only wrong, but outright stupid. Orientalism as an academic discipline thrived for the centuries it did only because European weaponry intentionally and persistently kept those cultures from asserting themselves.

Indigenous peoples – throughout the Americas, Australia, the Pacific, and Africa – who have been the targets of cultural and eradicative genocides for centuries now claim and agitate for their human rights, as well as inclusion in the broader human community and species. I believe most people of conscience are appalled and depressed that these claims are controversial at all, and even seen by some as a sign of civilizational decline.

The impact of contemporary technology I consider an even more important factor than the end of imperialist colonialism in the imperative to globalize the philosophical tradition. Despite the popular rhetoric of contemporary globalization, the human world has been globalized for millennia. Virtually since urban life first developed, long-distance international trade and communication began as well.

Here are some examples. Some of the first major cities of ancient Babylon achieved their greatest economic prosperity through trade with cities on the south of the Arabian Peninsula, and as far east along the Indian Ocean coast as Balochistan. From 4000 to 1000 years ago, Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Persian, Arab, Chinese, Mongol, Indian, Bantu, Malian, Inca, and Anishinaabeg peoples, among others, built trade networks and institutions stretching across continents.

Contemporary globalization is different in the speed and quantity of commerce, and diversity of goods. It is now possible to reach the opposite side of the planet in a day’s travel, a journey so ordinary that tens of millions of people take these flights each year. Real-time communication is now possible between anywhere on Earth with broadband internet connections thanks to satellite networks and undersea fibre-optic cables. In 2015, the total material value of all goods and commercial services traded internationally was US$21-trillion. That’s a drop from the previous year’s all-time (literally) high of US$24-trillion.[1]

Travel, communication, and productivity has never been so massive or intense in all of human history. The major control hubs of the global economy are no longer centralized in a small set of colonial powers, but a variety of economic centres throughout the world, depending on industry. From Beijing, Moscow, Mumbai, Lagos, and Berlin to Tokyo, and Washington, the oil fields of Kansas, the Dakotas, Alberta, and Iraq, and the coltan, titanium, and tantalum mines of Congo, Kazakhstan, and China.

All these proliferating lists express a simple truth – all cultures of the world now legitimately claim recognition as equals, as human communities sharing our Earth as we hollow it out. Philosophical traditions from all over the world are components of those claims to equal recognition.

The Tradition of Process Thought

So that is the situation forcing a recalcitrant and reactionary academy to widen its curricular horizons – Do so, or face irrelevancy in a global civilization with multiple centres all standing as civic equals in the human community. This is where Van Norden himself leaves us. Thankfully, he understands that a polemic ending with a precise program immediately becomes empty dogma, a conclusion which taints the plausibility of an argument. His point is simple – that the academic discipline must expand its arms. He leaves the more complex questions of how the philosophical tradition itself can develop as a genuinely global community.

Process philosophy is a relatively new philosophical tradition, which can adopt the classics of Daoist philosophy as broad frameworks and guides. By process philosophy, I mean the research community that has grown around Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari as primary innovators of their model of thought – a process philosophy that converges with an ecological post-humanism. The following are some essential aspects of this new school of process thinking, each principle in accord with the core concepts of the foundational texts of Daoism, Dao De Jing and Zhuang Zi.

Ecological post-humanist process philosophy is a thorough materialism, but it is an anti-reductive materialism. All that exists is bodies of matter and fields of force, whose potentials include everything for which Western philosophers have often felt obligated to postulate a separate substance over and above matter, whether calling it mind, spirit, or soul.

As process philosophy, the emphasis in any ontological analysis is on movement, change, and relationships instead of the more traditional Western focus on identity and sufficiency. If I can refer to examples from the beginning of Western philosophy in Greece, process thought is an underground movement with the voice of Heraclitus critiquing a mainstream with the voice of Parmenides. Becoming, not being, is the primary focus of ontological analysis.

Process thinking therefore is primarily concerned with potential and capacity. Knowledge, in process philosophy, as a result becomes inextricably bound with action. This unites a philosophical school identified as “Continental” in common-sense categories of academic disciplines with the concerns of pragmatist philosophy. Analytic philosophy took up many concepts from early 20th century pragmatism in the decades following the death of John Dewey. These inheritors, however, remained unable to overcome the paradoxes stymieing traditional pragmatist approaches, particularly how to reconcile truth as correspondence with knowledge having a purpose in action and achievement.

A solution to this problem of knowledge and action was developed in the works of Barry Allen during the 2000s. Allen built an account of perception that was rooted in contemporary research in animal behaviour, human neurology, and the theoretical interpretations of evolution in the works of Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin.

His first analysis, focussed as it was on the dynamics of how human knowledge spurs technological and civilizational development, remains humanistic. Arguing from discoveries of how profoundly the plastic human brain is shaped in childhood by environmental interaction, Allen concludes that successful or productive worldly action itself constitutes the correspondence of our knowledge and the world. Knowledge does not consist of a private reserve of information that mirrors worldly states of affairs, but the physical and mental interaction of a person with surrounding processes and bodies to constitute those states of affairs. The plasticity of the human brain and our powers of social coordination are responsible for the peculiarly human mode of civilizational technology, but the same power to constitute states of affairs through activity is common to all processes and bodies.[2]

“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. Whatever is soft, fluid, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard.” – Lao Zi
The Burney Falls in Shasta County, Northern California. Image by melfoody via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Action in Phase With All Processes: Wu Wei

Movement of interaction constitutes the world. This is the core principle of pragmatist process philosophy, and as such brings this school of thought into accord with the Daoist tradition. Ontological analysis in the Dao De Jing is entirely focussed on vectors of becoming – understanding the world in terms of its changes, movements, and flows, as each of these processes integrate in the complexity of states of affairs.

Not only is the Dao De Jing a foundational text in what is primarily a process tradition of philosophy, but it is also primarily pragmatist. Its author Lao Zi frames ontological arguments in practical concerns, as when he writes, “The most supple things in the world ride roughshod over the most rigid” (Dao De Jing §43). This is a practical and ethical argument against a Parmenidean conception of identity requiring stability as a necessary condition.

What cannot change cannot continue to exist, as the turbulence of existence will overcome and erase what can exist only by never adapting to the pressures of overwhelming external forces. What can only exist by being what it now is, will eventually cease to be. That which exists in metamorphosis and transformation has a remarkable resilience, because it is able to gain power from the world’s changes. This Daoist principle, articulated in such abstract terms, is in Deleuze and Guattari’s work the interplay of the varieties of territorializations.

Knowledge in the Chinese tradition, as a concept, is determined by an ideal of achieving harmonious interaction with an actor’s environment. Knowing facts of states of affairs – including their relationships and tendencies to spontaneous and proliferating change – is an important element of comprehensive knowledge. Nonetheless, Lao Zi describes such catalogue-friendly factual knowledge as, “Those who know are not full of knowledge. Those full of knowledge do not know” (Dao De Jing 81). Knowing the facts alone is profoundly inadequate to knowing how those facts constrict and open potentials for action. Perfectly harmonious action is the model of the Daoist concept of Wu Wei – knowledge of the causal connections among all the bodies and processes constituting the world’s territories understood profoundly enough that self-conscious thought about them becomes unnecessary.[3]

Factual knowledge is only a condition of achieving the purpose of knowledge: perfectly adapting your actions to the changes of the world. All organisms’ actions change their environments, creating physically distinctive territories: places that, were it not for my action, would be different. In contrast to the dualistic Western concept of nature, the world in Daoist thought is a complex field of overlapping territories whose tensions and conflicts shape the character of places. Fulfilled knowledge in this ontological context is knowledge that directly conditions your own actions and the character of your territory to harmonize most productively with the actions and territories that are always flowing around your own.

Politics of the Harmonious Life

The Western tradition, especially in its current sub-disciplinary divisions of concepts and discourses, has treated problems of knowledge as a domain separate from ethics, morality, politics, and fundamental ontology. Social epistemology is one field of the transdisciplinary humanities that unites knowledge with political concerns, but its approaches remain controversial in much of the conservative mainstream academy. The Chinese tradition has fundamentally united knowledge, moral philosophy, and all fields of politics especially political economy since the popular eruption of Daoist thought in the Warring States period 2300 years ago. Philosophical writing throughout eastern Asia since then has operated in this field of thought.

As such, Dao-influenced philosophy has much to offer contemporary progressive political thought, especially the new communitarianism of contemporary social movements with their roots in Indigenous decolonization, advocacy for racial, sexual, and gender liberation, and 21st century socialist advocacy against radical economic inequality. In terms of philosophical tools and concepts for understanding and action, these movements have dense forebears, but a recent tradition.

The movement for economic equality and a just globalization draws on Antonio Gramsci’s introduction of radical historical contingency to the marxist tradition. While its phenomenological and testimonial principles and concepts are extremely powerful and viscerally rooted in the lived experience of subordinated – what Deleuze and Guattari called minoritarian – people as groups and individuals, the explicit resources of contemporary feminism is likewise a century-old storehouse of discourse. Indigenous liberation traditions draw from a variety of philosophical traditions lasting millennia, but the ongoing systematic and systematizing revival is almost entirely a 21st century practice.

Antonio Negri, Rosi Braidotti, and Isabelle Stengers’ masterworks unite an analysis of humanity’s destructive technological and ecological transformation of Earth and ourselves to develop a solution to those problems rooted in communitarian moralities and politics of seeking harmony while optimizing personal and social freedom. Daoism offers literally thousands of years of work in the most abstract metaphysics on the nature of freedom in harmony and flexibility in adaptation to contingency. Such conceptual resources are of immense value to these and related philosophical currents that are only just beginning to form explicitly in notable size in the Western tradition.

Van Norden has written a book that is, for philosophy as a university discipline, is a wake-up call to this obstinate branch of Western academy. The world around you is changing, and if you hold so fast to the contingent borders of your tradition, your territory will be overwritten, trampled, torn to bits. Live and act harmoniously with the changes that are coming. Change yourself.

It isn’t so hard to read some Lao Zi for a start.

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

Allen, Barry. Knowledge and Civilization. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2004.

Allen, Barry. Striking Beauty: A Philosophical Look at the Asian Martial Arts. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

Allen, Barry. Vanishing Into Things: Knowledge in Chinese Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Betasamosake Simpson, Leanne. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, Or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2012.

Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013.

Deleuze, Gilles. Bergsonism. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. New York: Zone Books, 1988.

Chew, Sing C. World Ecological Degradation: Accumulation, Urbanization, and Deforestation, 3000 B.C. – A.D. 2000. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 2001.

Negri, Antonio, and Michael Hardt. Assembly. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Parikka, Jussi. A Geology of Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

Riggio, Adam. Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015.

Stengers, Isabelle. Cosmopolitics I. Translated by Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2010.

Stengers, Isabelle. Cosmopolitics II. Translated by Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2011.

Van Norden, Bryan. Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

World Trade Organization. World Trade Statistical Review 2016. Retrieved from https://www.wto.org/english/res_e/statis_e/wts2016_e/wts2016_e.pdf

[1] That US$3-trillion drop in trade was largely the proliferating effect of the sudden price drop of human civilization’s most essential good, crude oil, to just less than half of its 2014 value.

[2] A student of Allen’s arrived at this conclusion in combining his scientific pragmatism with the French process ontology of Deleuze and Guattari in the context of ecological problems and eco-philosophical thinking.

[3] This concept of knowledge as perfectly harmonious but non-self-conscious action also conforms to Henri Bergson’s concept of intuition, the highest (so far) form of knowledge that unites the perfect harmony in action of brute animal instinct with the self-reflective and systematizing power of human understanding. This is a productive way for another creative contemporary philosophical path – the union of vitalist and materialist ideas in the work of thinkers like Jane Bennett – to connect with Asian philosophical traditions for centuries of philosophical resources on which to draw. But that’s a matter for another essay.