Sunday, January 14, 2007

Reactionary Chinese & other wisdom in comparative perspective

Wisdom and Chinese Philosophy
Journal of Chinese Philosophy, vol. 33, no 3., September 2006

Discounting the book reviews unrelated to the issue theme, here are the contents:

What Is Wisdom? (Chung-Ying Cheng)
Wisdom in Comparative Perspectives (Xinzhong Yao)
Philosophy of the Yijing: Insights into Taiji and Dao as Wisdom of Life (Chung-Ying Cheng)
Yi: Practical Wisdom in Confucius’s Analects (Jiyuan Yu)
From “What Is Below” to “What Is Above”: A Confucian Discourse on Wisdom (Xinzhong Yao)
Philosophy and Philosophical Reasoning in the Zhuangzi: Dealing with Plurality (Karyn Lynne Lai)
Signs of Liberation?—A Semiotic Approach to Wisdom in Chinese Madhyamika Buddhism (Brian Bocking & Youxuan Wang)
A Neo-Confucian Conception of Wisdom: Wang Yangming in the Innate Moral Knowledge (Liangzhi) (Yong Huang)
Can We Attain Wisdom? A Non-Dualist Problem in Saiva Philosophy (Gavin Flood)
“Wisdom as Folly”: Comparative Reflections on a Pauline Paradox (Christopher D. Hancock)
Receiving and Acquiring Wisdom in Islam (David Thomas)

Three years ago I reviewed the 30th anniversary issue of the Journal of Chinese Philosophy and found it wanting. This issue is just as unsatisfying, not because it lacks objective information about its subject matter, but because the absence of criticism of the reactionary belief systems contained in it bespeak an unacceptable gullibility.

A working definition of wisdom might be the combination of deep insight and practical judgment. In our contemporary world, insight has to extend far beyond the realm of immediate personal judgment, as I argued three years ago in my presentation Wisdom and Abstract Thought. Alas, the traditional belief systems of Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam muck it up completely with obscurantist metaphysics and harmful superstitions.

In his preface Chung-Ying Cheng claims that wisdom is theoretical and practical, and that it is synthetic. (317-8) Unfortunately, neither he nor any of his authors have any theory of their own by which to judge the traditional "theories" described herein.

In his main essay Cheng outlines the metaphysics on which the Yiching (I Ching) is based. The highest organizing principles are the taiji (supreme ultimate) and the dao. The next level is comprised of the interactions of yin and yang. Reality is a recursive, organismic totality.

Yi is righteousness, or more accurately, appropriateness. Confucius considers appropriateness (yi) to be supreme, but he also ranks wisdom (zhi) highly. According to Jiyuan Yu, Confucian wisdom is both theoretical and practical. It is theoretical because the sage knows the ming (destiny, mandate) of heaven. Appropriateness concerns practical affairs. (341-2) Confucius does not give a detailed picture of their relationship, but the author claims:

. . . to have wisdom is to know the social rites and their ontological grounds, while appropriateness is more closely associated with the agent's choosing and determining. (342)
He thinks this brings Confucius close to Aristotle, and attempts to tease out the obscurities in Mencius' conceptions.

The author further argues that practical reasoning is flexible and based on ethical particularism and analogical reasoning.

Xinzhong Yao argues that Confucianism begins with knowledge of human affairs (below) to make claims about ultimate reality (above). In the Confucian view, fact and value are inseparable. (350) (It seems they are indistinguishable.) Confucius, in contrast to Plato, does not draw an absolute distinction between the visible world and the intelligible world. (351) In Confucianism, knowledge begins in small matters but such is insufficient in itself to take on great responsibilities. "For Confucius and Mengzi, [Mencius] knowledge of humans would not be qualified as wisdom unless it is concerned with human nature, and is able to reveal to us the knowledge of human destiny." (352) Destiny is knowable only by knowing human nature, which is based in morals, not on a conception of faculties. (353) Mengzi's conception of destiny is imbued with his notion of the innate tendency toward goodness of human nature. This tilts the notion of predestination from the cosmic towards the human sphere. (354) The emphasis of Confucianism is on virtue, not fatalism, for the better one understands and acts in accordance with human nature, the better one understands destiny, as human and cosmic nature are intertwined. (356) Hence, from below to above. (357) Heaven is vaguely defined. (358) Confucius is an optimist though aware of human limitations. (359)

I wonder at this point whether the philosophical banalities of Confucianism at this stage of its development, considering their conceptual poverty, might be less harmful than the more elaborate cosmologies and metaphysics of other belief systems. The problem with all of this pragmatic virtue talk is that it is all predicated on very conservative traditions and social institutions. Perhaps a comparison of Confucius and Edmund Burke is in order?

As might be expected, the sole redeeming contribution to this volume is the article on Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu). Lai addresses the question of whether Zhuangzi's elucidation of multiple perspectives implies relativism. Such a conclusion is not only unwarranted, it would miss Zhuangzi's point, which was to show up the limitations of competing schools of thought, particularly the Mohists and Confucians locked into partial conceptions of reality. The logician Gongsun Long (if memory serves, he was associated with the "School of Names") presumed the validity of the Confucian project of the "rectification of names". (367) Zhuangzi, however, was skeptical of the correspondence of names and reality. Zhuangzi's famous parables illustrate the realization that there is no privileged observer or vantage point from which to adjudicate localized perspectives--"saying from a lodging-place". (370) By way of contrast of localized perspectives we learn of their limitations. Lai enumerates five ways of dealing with a plurality of perspectives, none of which seem to be Zhuangzi's. (371) Wisdom begins with understanding perspectival limitations, and critical self-reflection. Lai draws a dubious pluralist moral for our era of globalization. (373)

I loved reading Zhuangzi 35 years ago. It's one of the scanty memories of Chinese philosophy I've retained. I have doubts I missed much else. From this point we delve into the deep waters of metaphysical obscurantism, where Buddhism enters the scene.

Bocking and Wang begin by referencing Foucault. Ouch! They argue, based on Saussure and Derrida:

. . . that, for the [Madhyamika] Buddhists, ignorance is a form of attachment, and the objects of attachments are signs. Wisdom, therefore, is an insight into the empty nature of signs. (376)
Ignorance is ontologically universal, a property of all sentient beings, all caught up in the machinery of reincarnation. (378) The vulgar person’s cognition is driven by sense-impressions, based on the sense of touch, driven by the impulse of grasping. The sign is the product of picture-thinking. (379) The Hinayana semiotic model is outlined, as is the epistemic model for overcoming illusion. (380ff) The intellect, which goes beyond the senses, deals with conditioned, finite dharmas. However, there are three unconditioned dharmas, concerning which one has to attain a meditative state, passing through three Doors to Liberation en route to nirvana—Emptiness, Signlessness, Resignation.

The Mahayana semiotic model dissents from this view. Emphasizing compassion, individual enlightenment takes into account the sufferings of others, and does not absolutize conditioned and unconditioned dharmas. (384-5) The semiotic differences are further explored.

From the depths of Buddhist obscurantism we return to the lightweight banalities of Confucianism. Wang Yangming is interested in the relationship between innate moral knowledge (Liangzhi) and acquired non-moral knowledge (zhi) which should serve as means to augment the ends of innate moral knowledge. Wang is not entirely consistent, but he attributes evil to defective qi. While Yong Huang is aware of the defects of innatism as an empirical theory, he solves his difficulties by declaring it a metaphysical, normative theory. Wang recommends faith in the innate moral knowledge, and action will bear it out. (403) Kant is cited to back up this view.

Back to Buddhism. Apparently there are a number of schools of thought under the Saiva category. One means to salvation is the purification of thought. Even ordinary instinctual urges can be used as methods to attain non-dual awareness, and of course, liberation from the cycle of rebirth. There is a paradox, however: the wisdom of non-dual awareness cannot be attained by a method, so that the method must be a non-method. (414ff) The consequence of such radical idealism is that conventional ethics disappears in this schema of wisdom. (417) The tradition so described is that of Abhinavagupta. In contrast, the Confucian Cheng Hao advocated a form of non-dualism based on virtue. (417)

If all this weren't bad enough, it gets worse. St. Paul upholds the wisdom of the cross against rational speculative wisdom. While some may consider this an extremist form of anti-intellectualism, Hancock apparently sympathizes with Paul's "wholesome orthodoxy". Even more incredibly, Hancock finds parallels with "wisdom as folly" in ancient Chinese philosophy. Confucian ethics is this-worldly; it seemingly could not be more different from Christianity. (426) This does not deter Hancock. He finds three parallels: (1) "Paul and Confucianism share a reservation about intellectualism. " Both recognize the limitations of learning and are open to contradiction. (2) They "share a socially inclusive attitude to wisdom." (3) They both recognize the essential 'otherness' of wisdom." In Christianity the alienness of wisdom is obvious, but Hancock argues, incredibly, that Confucian symbol, fable, rhetoric, and moral discourse are of the same stripe. (429) This is brazen nonsense.

Mohists questioned the foundations of Confucianism and ranked knowledge as determinative of ethical judgment. Mohism opposed Confucianism as exclusive, elitist, unrealistic and hypocritical, and claimed a more universal morality. Confucius is judged as a failure, but the Mohist sage speaks and acts clearly and effectively. Hancock has the chutzpah to characterize the Mohist attitude as Pauline. (430-432) While "superficially" Mohism appears very different from Pauline doctrine, they are both critical of tradition and the misuse of language and share an affinity with Wittgenstein! (433) Unbelievable! The shamelessness!

Hancock even finds affinities with between Christianity and Daoism! Apparently, the commonality is based on a shared skepticism and recognition of the bounds of human knowledge. (434) This is just bald-faced idiocy and dishonesty.

The final article is on Islam. While in Islam all wisdom issues from the Qu'ran, God's word channeled through the prophet Muhammad, there are nonetheless different schools of thought about the wisdom residing in man. One line of thought claims an innate ability to understand God and reality's secrets. These two views of wisdom clashed violently; nonetheless, this latter eventually made space for itself. Conservative Muslims condemned speculative thinking and proclaimed unquestioning obedience to the Qu'ran. Rational theologians, on the other hand, sought to place religious teachings within a systematic framework. The prophets are seen as receptacles and sources of wisdom, and furthermore, there is reciprocity between creature and Creator. Islamic mysticism goes even further, claiming intuitive insights transcending legalism. The introduction of Greek philosophy proved a threat to legalism, and Neoplatonism virtually enthroned reason. Philosophers were forced to seek a reconciliation of reason with revelation. The philosopher Abu Bakr Ibn Tufayl's parable Hayy Ibn Yaqzan is detailed.

As Chinese thought lacks a strong theistic focus, the absence of any traceable influence on the Islamic world is unsurprising. A tangible basis of comparison of notions of wisdom is not to be sought in early Confucianism, but in the Neo-Confucian doctrine of Zhou Dunyi, according to whom the tai ji (Great Ultimate) endows humans with intelligence to be cultivated. This finds some parallels in Hayy Ibn Yaqzan. A stronger correspondence can be found comparing the system of the Neo-Confucian Zhu Xi not only with Ibn Tufayl’s work but with Ibn Sina’s philosophy, especially as developed by al-Suhrawardi. (449-50)

Reading 135 pages of this stuff could make a person ill. With the apparent exception of the Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), these belief systems are pretty much a total loss. The best that can be said for Confucianism (at least in its early stages) is that its relative conceptual poverty as opposed to the monstrosities of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam overburdened with oppressive supernaturalism, at least adds fewer insults to the injuries of traditionalism, conservatism, and class hierarchy. But all of these claims to wisdom are fatally contaminated by the idealist metaphysics that saturate them and inhibit the potential of the critical intellect, confining the human mind within fixed limits of pre-modern class societies and imprisoning minds in even more pernicious ways in modern and modernizing societies. Transcendentalism pretends to make more of man and renders him less. What inexhaustible ignorance, duplicity, violence and savagery the brainy primates that created belief systems such as these possessed! The ultimate wisdom--the wisdom for today--lies in the critical intellect that aims to excise the disease of superstitious ignorance that infects the human race.

Alas, the "humanistic" intelligentsia doesn't seem to be doing its part. This Journal of Chinese Philosophy betrays an utterly rotten agenda. Globalization of intellectual endeavor comes down to the cross-cultural collusion of reactionary ideologies. Is global fascism to be the wave of the future, or we are going to put a stop to it?

Chinese Philosophy in the West: Globalization Gone Bad (1)
Wisdom and Abstract Thought

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