Monday, January 8, 2007

The Legitimacy of Chinese Philosophy (2)

"I must Create a System, or be enslav'd by another Mans"
-- William Blake, Jerusalem 10.20

More on:

The Legitimacy of Chinese Philosophy, Part III
Contemporary Chinese Thought, vol. 37, no. 3, Spring 2006.

The demarcation of a discipline called “philosophy” and the question of the commensurability of disparate intellectual traditions—the Chinese and the Western (which itself can be divided into a minimum of three periods—ancient Greek (and Roman), medieval Christian, and modern)—on the face of it seems like a petty preoccupation. This curious tug-of-war exemplified by Hegel vs. Derrida on the uniqueness of Western philosophy, while its premises might be faulty, at least points to a central issue.

There are two interrelated questions here: the nature of “philosophy” and its relation to “non-philosophy” (the sciences, literature, religion, folk wisdom, etc.).

Why draw a line around “philosophy” and demarcate it from all other intellectual activities? What are its defining properties? Has the line always been drawn the same, even in the so-called “West”? Why were all branches of knowledge once subsumed under “philosophy” in the West, only to defect in the modern period as each branch of study became a “science”?

While different commentators in the debate over the legitimacy of Chinese philosophy stress the differences in demarcation of subject matter in Western and Chinese thought, Hu Jun alone recognizes the changes in Western disciplines from Greek antiquity to the formation of modern specialized sciences. Hence another intrinsic as well as demarcational question should be addressed: if there is a difference between “philosophy” and “thought” in general, what makes “philosophy” distinctive? Clearly not all contributions included within the domain of “Western philosophy” are systematic, but the distinguishing feature most often implied is the logical structure and systematicity of Western philosophies. Most often the explicit defining characteristic is “metaphysics”, singled out for praise or blame. Following that is epistemology, which some claim was underdeveloped in traditional Chinese philosophy.

“Metaphysics” itself is a loaded term, in that it can refer to speculative a priori systems that are discredited by most in the age of science, or more innocently to ontologies that claim only provisional status parasitic on the development of empirical knowledge. Because of the inherently weaselly nature of the term, “metaphysics” is easy to single out as a target and it has been attacked by divergent interests on murky grounds—by the logical empiricists as the relic of animistic, pre-scientific thought, and by irrationalists such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida, some of whom view Western philosophy or Western rationality as a monolithic enterprise founded on the primal malfeasance of metaphysical or logocentric self-deception.

Let’s pursue this latter point for a moment. Logically ordered abstract metaphysical systems, especially of the premodern period, could be taken cynically as self-enclosed idealist constructs, elaborate rationalizations and mystifications that repress the reality of the empirical world and justify the ruling order. If so, they could be seen historically as counterproductive and deserve to be smashed in order to free the human mind. What then are the alternatives? What are the relative weights of systematicity and unsystematicity or even anti-systematicity as vehicles of ideological mystification? (Is Plato worse than Confucius or the Bhagavadgita?) Where is the antidote to be found?

This is a huge subject. Bullet points will have to do for now.

(1) Hegel saw systematicity or explicit logical elaboration (the German word wissenschaft is much broader in reference than the English science) as a vehicle for the progress of freedom, prioritizing begriff (concept) over vorstellung (representation, picture-thinking), and philosophy over religion (albeit with ambiguity). Hegel’s opposition to Schelling, Schlegel, and other contemporaries, and even Hegel’s ethnocentric devaluation of Indian and Chinese philosophy, are bound up with the struggle against mystification, authoritarianism, and reaction.

(2) There is a whole line of intellectual development effectively suppressed now by postmodernism (admittedly a sloppily deployed cover term for deconstruction, poststructuralism, and other trendy currents), a line running through Feuerbach and Marx, that effectively criticizes metaphysics from completely different premises from the reactionary irrationalist tradition (which could be said to crystallize with Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer) running through Nietzsche and Heidegger.

(3) Adorno (Metaphysics: Concept and Problems) saw metaphysics as dual in character: it both perpetuates the preoccupations of theology while establishing rational autonomy from traditional religion. Marcuse (Reason and Revolution) saw German idealism and even metaphysics in toto as a critique of the existent.

(4) There are different approaches to the question of what remains when philosophy is emptied of its traditional content: epistemology, science, anti-philosophy, literature, irony, conversation, critical theory. Some of these approaches are committed to conceptual coherence; others pretend to undermine it.

One might think that the reversion to personal wisdom and sagehood would be just the cure for alienated abstractions, but is it so? If the goal is critical thought and a systematic understanding of one's world, then a knowledge mode rather than knower mode of legitimation may be preferable, and the sagehood model might be the more reactionary.

My own take on philosophy, apart from any recognized tradition, is that some form of method or abstractive conceptual apparatus enables an understanding of the ideational environment that spontaneous cognition does not, and this is especially so in our modern world where the information to be processed is rarely limited to direct interchange with nature and face-to-face interpersonal contact. Even an ironic or anti-systemic counteroffensive against systemic mystification requires systematic discipline to ascertain the ideological contours of one’s society and to transcend the framework of same.

Again, how does all this relate to Chinese philosophy? The character of Chinese “thought”—whether or not it falls in line with restrictive Western characterizations of “philosophy”—should be evaluated with the above considerations in mind. What does traditional Chinese thought enable us to think or not? Yu Wujin is most explicit on the shortcomings of Chinese tradition, and Qiao Qingju briefly alludes to its deficiencies in logic and epistemology. Several authors emphasize the strengths of Chinese philosophy, in matters of morality, ethics, human relations, and wisdom. I have my doubts about these alleged positives, however. The Confucian tradition seems pretty worthless and reactionary as a whole, and its revival should be held in greatest suspicion. Buddhism is riddled with obscurantism, but there are bound to be nuggets of interest in it, of epistemological interest, or perhaps selectively usable elements of Ch’an Buddhism (the origin of Zen). The essential issue is the ability to conceptualize and criticize the foundations of the ideological environment one inherits. The best that the ancient Chinese ideological environment had to offer were the two central texts of Taoism (Daoism)—to abstract them out of tradition—the Tao Te Ching (Daodejing) and Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi). There are questions about the limits and fruitfulness of this philosophy when considered in interaction with other key realms of knowledge claims, not only religious and magical beliefs, but science and politics.

Several of the authors mention the influence of Soviet philosophy, but they did not specify where how much of it they got and when. Did Soviet input end with the Sino-Soviet split? If so, the Chinese would have been subjected to Soviet philosophy at its worst and would have missed out on its more professional development in the 1960s and 1970s, especially in historiography of philosophy. The Soviets were not so ethnocentric as to exclude India and China from consideration. For example, Theodore Oizerman dealt with the historical emergence of "philosophy" as a distinctive, recognizable entity out of general worldview, mythology, religion, and informal wisdom, with relationships to the state of scientific knowledge and general ideological needs of a given social organization. Oddly, none of these Chinese authors approach their subject matter in this fashion. Had they done so, they would have posed the question how and why Chinese thought organized itself along different lines from ancient Greece, medieval Christian Europe, and the modern bourgeois, scientific and technological era, and what relationship Chinese “philosophy” or “thought” had to the scientific, mathematical, and other knowledge of the day.

Hence, other than the need to assess one’s interpretive methods in assessing the meaning of a vanished tradition, the discussion over the contemporary needs of Chinese philosophy is sterile. Opinion is, as you can see, divided over national perspective and relation to tradition, but, judging from what we see here, not to mention what I’ve seen of contemporary Chinese philosophy outside of the mainland, “Chinese philosophy” as an organized enterprise is bankrupt.

Chinese Philosophy in the West: Globalization Gone Bad (1)
Taoism & the Tao of Bourgeois Philosophy (review of J. J. Clarke, The Tao of the West)
Soviet Historiography of Philosophy: Review Essay
Review of Principles of the Theory of Historical Process in Philosophy (T.I Oizerman & A.S. Bogomolov)
Review of Problems of the History of Philosophy (Theodore Oizerman)
Modern Science and Its Philosophy by Philipp Frank
"Popes, Kings & Cultural Studies: Placing the commitment to non-disciplinarity in historical context" by Karl Maton
Wisdom and Abstract Thought
"How to Integrate Philosophy and Everyday Life: To Think Philosophically in Life, Or Reproduce the Fragmentation of Knowledge?"



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