Tuesday, January 30, 2007

John Horgan's 'Rational Mysticism'

Attempting to be more than Man We become less . . ."
--William Blake, The Four Zoas, Night the Ninth

In re:

Horgan, John. Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

Table of contents
Publisher description

See also:

Debunking Enlightenment, book review by Thomas W. Clark, Free Inquiry, Volume 24, Number 2.

My review of Clark's review

My initial reaction to Horgan

I began with a hasty judgment of the author, but as his account of his adventures proceeded, I became more tolerant of Horgan and more hostile to his interlocutors, and my only gripe against Horgan was his tolerance of them. Horgan maintains an interest in hallucinogenic drugs, which becomes a major theme in the book.

Horgan begins with a 1999 conference on "Science and Consciousness", which follows Fritjof Capra's line (which Capra has since repudiated, according to Horgan) on the spiritual implications of physics. (15) Horgan has no brief for this, but he proceeds to query Huston Smith about his mystical beliefs. Smith claims to embrace all the world's religions and even purports to find unity among their contradictory belief systems. Horgan's not buying this either, and he is critical of Smith's metaphysics (which came to him in a drug-induced vision) and anti-scientific attitude. (22-23)

Horgan is also concerned that the mystical experience is not necessarily positive; it brings us face to face with the dark side of the universe and the problem of evil, thus his sympathies for gnosticism. (32)

His next encounter is with a group of postmodernist believers, such as Bernard McGinn, a Catholic. Here Horgan introduces another of his major preoccupations--the legitimacy or lack thereof of the notion of a "perennial philosophy". (40) Horgan introduces Steven Katz, who also looks askance at the perennial philosophy and is skeptical of Western adaptations of Eastern religions. (41ff) Katz is also an Orthodox Jew, and ties the anti-Semitism attributed to Joseph Campbell to the latter's perennialism. (46) Queried about whether Katz's relativistic inclinations lead to skepticism, Katz retorts that perennialism leads to skepticism, while his particularist view fosters tolerance. Horgan doesn't believe it. (47) He reviews Smith's notion of the 'scandal of particularly', or the idea that the Divine would favor any individual or group. (49) Finally, Horgan raises the issue of the notorious misbehavior of gurus, and the phenomenon of "holy madness". (53)

Ken Wilber is pro-science, pro-perennial philosophy, and favors a rational mysticism as synthesis of East and West, yet opposes the unification of physics and spirituality. (56) He has a classification scheme of levels of being and consciousness, the highest being nondual awareness, and lower levels including materialism, superstition, and New Age thought. (57) Horgan is initially uncomfortable with Wilber's work, but looks forward to meeting him. (58) Wilber firmly rejects postmodernism and quantum mysticism as well as materialism. (60) He also doesn't believe in drug use as a spiritual path. Wilber rejects the notion that mysticism yields moral superiority or privileged insight into the workings of the cosmos. (61-62) (In this he reminds me of Swami Agehananda Bharati , whom Horgan unaccountably never mentions.) Wilber is basically optimistic, but his progressive view of the cosmos is "embedded in a cyclical Hindu cosmology." (63) He believes that mind is primary to matter, but otherwise he is cogent enough to be favorably reviewed by Skeptical Inquirer. (64)

Horgan admires him, but is irritated by Wilber's big ego. Wilber himself admits this, though he claims 'ascience' (not-knowing) rather than omniscience. (65) Wilber then dipped into his book Integral Pyschology to deploy his erudition. (Howard Gardner wouldn't buy this concept or 'spiritual intelligence'.) (66) Wilber's model is more sophisticated than Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness, which exploited social darwinist thinking in a sexist and especially racist manner. (67) Wilber felt that God created the cosmos out of loneliness. (68) But Wilber rejects the dark gnostic view of the cosmos. (70) Horgan retains his doubts about nondual awareness, which is an extemely rare phenomenon. He also doubts Wilber's claim that mysticism is as empirical as science, since it is not replicable or transparent to all observers. (71) Wilber places high hopes on neuroscience.

Chapter 4 is devoted to neurotheology. Andrew Newberg and Eugene D'Aquili are advocates of the perennial philosophy. Newberg links mysticism to quantum mechanics. (77) Both argue that mysticism, meditation, and religious belief are good for us. (78-79) When prodded, Newberg is willing to concede the Dark Side of the Force (my lingo, not Horgan's). They express hope, with some backtracking, that one day neuroscience will be able to distinguish genuine mystical states. (81) Some have found their experiments ridiculous. (85) They have been funded by the Templeton Foundation. They believe in a transcendent reality, but they also tend to undermine their arguments when they postulate evolutionary causes, such as the notion that mystical states evolved from the experience of orgasm. (86) Horgan is reminded of a 1979 paper by Lewontin and Gould on spandrels, which criticizes the "Panglossian" (teleological?) fallacy that all human behavioral traits are adaptations. (87-88)

Michael Persinger is the inventor of the "God Machine", based on the notion that electrical impulses can generate religious and mystical states. He professes neutrality toward religious belief, but he's not terribly sympathetic to religion or mysticism. (95) Horgan tried out Persinger's machine, but it didn't do anything for him. Persinger himself never had any extraordinary experiences using this machine, perhaps because of his skeptical temperament. Others are skeptical that his research amounts to anything. (99) Persinger takes ESP seriously, which makes Horgan doubtful of him. (101) Horgan wonders if mysticism is connected to the paranormal and an evolutionary development as an extension of the ability to detect other minds. (105)

Susan Blackmore had a dramatic out-of-body experience and a lively interest in paranormal phenomena, but after putting her hypotheses to rigorous tests, became a skeptic. She also became a Zen Buddhist. She thinks that Buddhism anticipated cognitive science in some ways. She uses the concept of memes and suggests that the self is an illusion, just a bundle of memes. (114) She is skeptical of theorists like Ken Wilber. (117) Her vision of spiritual progress is stripped down: shed yourself of illusory memes. (119) Horgan is skeptical of her claims, particularly about the illusory self. He also has doubts about John Wren-Lewis, who argues for bliss by chance. (121)

Horgan gleaned the concepts of depersonalization and derealization from James Austin's Zen and the Brain. Austin sees mysticism in terms of personality changes, not metaphysical insight. That is, he believes in "perennial psychophysiology", not perennial philosophy. He has thoroughly reviewed the existing literature, much of which he finds flawed. He seeks to isolate the healthy from the pathological manifestations of these psychic states. (125) He doubts that the mystical experience can be localized in a specific part of the brain, and he "sees spiritual practice as a process of cognitive subtraction". (126) He is both skeptical of existing results and confident there is enlightenment at the end of the tunnel. (127) He thinks the states of "absorption" and kensho are rare, and that Newberg fails to do justice to the diversity of mystical experiences. (129) His experience of kensho made a lot of things seem unimportant, including the perennial philosophy. (130) He doesn't hold to the usual mystical claims, and he sees no reason to favor idealism over materialism as a metaphysical position. (131) He is also indifferent to the problem of evil. Horgan is rather unhappy about this position. Horgan doubts that enlightenment can be readily distinguished from passivity. He doesn't believe pro-Zen propaganda, as he finds Zen rife with dogmatism, amorality, and sadism. (133) But at least Austin is willing to subject all claims to experimental tests. Horgan notes that there is a philosophical problem, called "explanatory gaps", in all these scientific endeavors: the gap between physiological theories and subjective experience (qualia). (137) Biofeedback, by the way, proves to be limited. (139)

Horgan next turns to one of his favorite preoccupations, drugs. He begins chapter 8 with the story of LSD. Research is still going on in Basel, Switzerland, and one of the more interesting psychotropic plants is ayahuasca. Christian Ratsch thinks enlightenment is all about chemicals, not those years of traditional discipline. Enlightenment is transitory, like an orgasm, and there is no final enlightenment. (150) Franz Vollenweider's research, which does not jibe with everyone else's, is summarized. (151ff) He is skeptical about the sacramental, visionary use of drugs. (154) Albert Hoffman, the discoverer of LSD, thinks that Timothy Leary was irresponsible, but that a ban on LSD research and use is an outrage. He sees science and spirituality as complementary. (155ff) Horgan notes that, paradoxically, research into patterns of altered states induced by drugs and other medical factors fosters an "ultramaterialism". (157)

Chapter 9, quaintly titled "God's Psychoanalyst", is about Stanislav Grof, a key player in transpersonal psychology, a veteran New Ager and teacher at Esalen Institute, early experimenter with LSD, and developer of "holotropic breathwork". He doesn't care for "ultramaterialistic" interpretations of drug experiences. (163) He is a believer in birth trauma, reincarnation, and the paranormal generally. (165-167) Inspired by Hinduism and Buddhism, Grof seeks to explain Creation, and tackles the problem of evil, claiming it is necessary to relieve cosmic boredom. (170) Horgan is dubious of many of Grof's claims, though this dark theodicy does remind him of his own gnostic inclinations.

Rick Strassman proposed hyperspace aliens as a possible explanation for reported close encounters with strange beings. (174-176) Oh, dear.

Timothy Leary dubbed Terence McKenna the "Timothy Leary of the 90's." McKenna's drug of choice is DMT. His specialties are psychotropic plants and shamanism. Basically, he is a New Age trickster enamored with extravagant pseudoscientific and metaphysical notions powered by psychedelic fantasies (180-184), though he also lays claim to skepticism (184) when he's not showing off. He's all about novelty, which is part of his metaphysics (even fascism was a necessary lesson) and predicts some earth-shattering event in 2012. (187) God's purpose is the production of novelty. Though Horgan doesn't buy any of this, he likes the guy (192), whereas I found him the most obnoxious character in the book. Horgan reiterates his gnostic vision and recounts physicist Steven Weinberg's nature-does-not-care principle.

Horgan prepares to ingest the psychedelic drug ayahuasca under the sponsorship of psychonauts Ann and Alexander "Sasha" Shulgin. They muse over questions of spirituality, enlightenment, and mortality. The balance of chapter 11 describes Horgan's DMT trip.

By this time Horgan has contemplated the alternatives, from gnosticism to cosmic indifference to good luck. He sums up what he has learned from the diverse viewpoints described in the book. He settles on negative theology or Rudolf Otto's mysterium tremendum. (216-217) Contemplating the relation between science and mysticism, Horgan reflects on the improbabilities of the universe (including the postulated anthropic principle in its weak, strong, and dismissive forms; WAP, SAP and CRAP). (217) Horgan wonders whether there will be an end to science's ability to explain the universe, or an end to mystery, as Peter Atkins insists. (221) Various scientists speculate on our ultimate destiny, with positive or negative scenarios. Still captivated by mystery, Horgan adopts Susan Blackmore's view of Zen as garbage removal, to which he adds the qualification that garbage removal systems generate garbage as well. (222-224) Hence we should react with irony and skepticism when confronted with claims to solve the ultimate mystery. There are contrary views on the value of drugs. (225ff) One can have life-enhancing or horrific visions. But one can be as haunted by beauty and wonder as much as by the dark side. And don't forget about fun. (227)

The most valuable part of what Horgan has to say concerns "oneness", the gold standard of mysticism. Referencing The Guru Papers by Diana Alsted and Joel Kramer, Horgan reminds us that the ideology of oneness conceals duality, hierarchy, patriarchy, and authoritarianism. "Oneness" generates elite beings and submissiveness in their followers, as well as an escapist attitude toward life. It is no accident that such ideology originates in severely class-stratified civilizations like India. Mystical experiences can generate sociopathic behavior, with the illusion of transcending human morality. Oneness becomes indistinguishable from the void, and it gives Horgan the creeps. Even a God might be horrified to be alone. Plurality and individuality make more sense. (228-230)

Horgan and Shulgin speculate on the consequences for civilization if the perfect drug were ever discovered. Even though this is Shulgin's quest, he thinks it would spell the end of the human species. (231-232) Horgan is unwilling to part with "free will", illusion or no.

In his epilogue, Horgan recounts his own and other interlocutors' experiences with mourning and fellowship. His final scenario regarding his family is moving. Ultimately it is human love, even with all its heartbreak, that saves us.

On the whole, this slice of spiritual tourism is very instructive, mostly negatively, and complements Bharati, whom Horgan never mentions but who confirms his findings before the fact. I differ with Horgan mostly in my assessments of the people he encounters. I find almost all of them exceptionally irritating. The LSD researchers in Basel don't particularly bother me. Of the others, I am most willing to entertain Austin and then Blackmore, but with serious caveats. Horgan in the end comes off as very reasonable, though negative theology doesn't quite do it for me. While notion of "mystery" has a cognitive dimension, however impoverished, this as well as the mystical experience mostly comes down to an experience. If the universe's "mysteries" are beyond solution, a distinction is nonetheless warranted, between the intellectually inexplicable and a more intuitive sense of wonder. As our very notions of scientific explanation are altered by the progress of science and increasingly arcane fundamental physical notions, even scientific explanation is not what it used to be, and in some sense defies comprehension. But mystery, however you spin it, is preferable to pseudo-explanation. One can have a much more dynamic life building on the knowable.

As for experience, while some researchers postulate beneficial personality effects, which may be more important than metaphysical claims, we don't really get beyond scattered anecdotes to find a comprehensive picture of how the mystical quest affects the rest of people's lives. How we manage to live in this world is curiously absent from the picture.

For all the variegated speculations, claims and counter-claims in the book, it is largely a portrait of philosophical banality. That people trying to be deep prove so intellectually shallow is a telling sign.

Perhaps even more telling is the absence of any serious social or political analysis by any of the interlocutors or reflection on their role in bourgeois society. Claims of cosmic consciousness devoid of social consciousness occasion cause for suspicion. How civilization is organized has made us what we are, and our prospects for it reveal who we are. Silence on this matter is unwitting self-condemnation.


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Arthur Danto on Mysticism and Morality

Danto, Arthur C. Mysticism and Morality: Oriental Thought and Moral Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987. Orig. 1972.

1. Factual Beliefs and Moral Rules
2. Karma and Caste
3. Brahma, Boredom, and Release
4. Therapy and Theology in Buddhist Thought
5. The Discipline of Action in the Bhagavad Gita
6. Conforming to the Way
(+ Prefaces, Suggested Readings, Index)

Danto concisely picks out the problems with the world views of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, as illustrations of a general problem. If I had known about this book in 1972, maybe I could have saved myself a lot of grief in the 1970s.

Danto begins his 1987 preface with a quote from Hume on the uselessness of asceticism. Danto notes that a hypothetical dispute between Hume and a monk would not be over moral issues, but over rival claims concerning factual truth. Ironically, Hume argued that there is no logical connection between is and ought. There is more than a strictly logical issue at stake, however. Moral disagreements when matters of fact are not in dispute will still occur, but certain moral arguments and practices tend to collapse if based entirely on truth claims that can be shown to be false. Danto states this as a general principle, though its application in this book’s original 1972 edition was to the dependence of the moral outlook of imported mysticism on its view of reality. (viii-ix) It’s one thing to import dietary and yogic practices from the East, which fit in quite nicely with Western consumer practices, but the belief systems that undergird them are not viable.

In his 1972 preface, Danto writes as an analytical philosopher arguing that Westerners cannot adopt the moral beliefs of the Orient without adopting the factual beliefs on which they are based. Danto’s point of departure is the is-ought problem as conceived by David Hume and G.E. Moore, both of which Danto rejects. Danto accepts bits and pieces of other moral theories to construct his own, predicated on the notion that “moral propositions presuppose factual ones.” (xvi)

In the first chapter Danto reviews the fact-value dichotomy. Moral propositions might be considered to be disjunct from the logic of factual propositions because the former consist of rules, which are prima facie neither true nor false. (9) However, rules must have application conditions, i.e. presupposed facts of the world and circumstances under which they are to be applied, which also provide the basis for admitting of extenuations and exceptions. (11) Various religious commandments and supernatural beliefs are given as examples. Some moral disputes can be largely reduced to factual disagreements. Thus tolerance of differing moral beliefs may necessitate tolerance of the factual beliefs on which they are based. (13) While moral beliefs cannot be justified in the manner of factual beliefs, they can be falsified by the removal of false factual beliefs and thus the application rules on which they are dependent--analogous to the falsifiability of scientific theories. (15)

The Indians, like Socrates, predicated morality on knowledge of the Good. The difference is that in the East, free will is not a primary concern. (16-7) Indian thinkers see no gap between knowledge and its application. (18)

While much of Western morality has survived its theological basis, Danto surmises “that if the factual beliefs of India to which I refer are false, there is very little point in Indian philosophy, and very little room for serious application of Indian moral beliefs. . .” (21)

Chapter 2, on karma and caste, gets right to the point. Reason in Indian thought never separated itself from its peculiar religious notions of salvation. (22)

Danto argues, as did Max Weber, that the caste system of Hinduism resists universality, as members of different castes are regarded as members of different species. This leads to a peculiar kind of toleration, just as we tolerate animals because they can’t be like us. Hindus will tolerate the actions of others so long as their behavior is defined as licit for their caste. Therefore, the morality operant in this scenario stands or falls on the presupposed factual beliefs about caste. (34-5)

The doctrine of oneness does not imply respect, consideration, or care for one’s fellow man.

And so, the Hindu is likely to feel at one with the entire universe without necessarily feeling at one with any special portion of the universe, viz., that portion consisting of other humans. Respect for life as a whole is consistent with a not especially edifying attitude towards one's fellowmen, who, for all that they may be one essentially, nevertheless remain lodged at different stations on the surfaces of the world. That they should be where they are is, as karma teaches, very much a matter of just desert: they are there because they deserve to be there. (38)

Ethics is external, belonging to the body that is separate from one’s essential soul. (40) The essential impersonality of Brahma, atman, and karma is also reflected in Indian art and literature. The existence of karma is not argued or proved; it is simply accepted as a fact. (41) The one philosophical school that rejected karma was Carvaka materialism. (42ff)

Danto begins chapter 3 with the issue of cosmic boredom and a comparison of the Hindu undesirability of rebirth and Nietzsche’s eternal return. (47) Danto draws an interesting contrast between the scientific mediation (reduction) of appearance/phenomenon and reality/underlying material entities (e.g. heat is explained not by heat but by molecular behavior) and the Indian dismissal of phenomena as illusion. (54-5) He then attempts to analyze the state promised by meditation. The bliss promised by the Gita is undifferentiated, contentless, and passive. (60) The downside of yogic asceticism is explored: exceptional individual seen as endowed with exceptional powers transcends conventional moral bounds, while the schema of social control is preserved. (61ff)

In chapter 4 Danto analyzes the Buddha’s Middle Path and the Noble Truths, but there is a brief diversion on the appeal of Zen to artists, non-intellectuals, and the lower classes. (66) Danto finds the notion of desire as the cause of suffering dubious. At this point, Buddha gets caught up in the general Indian cosmology of karma, the most critical desire, even while rejecting the theory of atman. (69) Danto analyzes the Buddhist conception of consciousness as the cause of the bodily self. (71) He finds the Buddha’s claim to reject metaphysical questions disingenuous, as some serious metaphysics (hardly comprehensible to the average peasant) is a prerequisite to the acceptance of his central claims. (72) Much of the Buddha’s doctrine is couched in parabolic form, but the metaphysical underpinning gradually takes over, relegating this world to illusion. (73) Buddhism runs the gamut of levels of intellectuality from the simplest to the most esoteric and abstract. (74)

The Mahayana tradition is oriented toward collective not merely individual salvation. Danto detects a paradox: the bodhisattva cannot pass over into Nirvana for selfish or unselfish reasons. (76) The disproportion between the exalted and the ordinary inevitably transforms the Mahayana into yet another religion, and the Buddha takes on godlike status. (78) If Samsara becomes Nirvana, then all of life becomes religious, and thus the world becomes aestheticized without alteration. Hence don’t change anything about the world, change your attitude. This will not do for Danto as a moral philosophy. (80-81) We must have an ethics, not of salvation, but of how to treat one another. (82)

In the next chapter Danto turns to the Bhagavad Gita. The infamous story of Arjuna is the key, the sophistical argument that Arjuna fight and kill with detachment. (88) One must perform one’s actions according to one’s calling, to be true to it without extraneous motivation. (91) This attitude is enabled by the detachment of self from body, so that one does not identify with the necessary actions of one’s body. Danto finds this to be bone-chilling, Nietzschean, and inhuman. The factual beliefs postulated are radically at odds with morality. (94-5) Danto ponders possible points of comparison of this notion of detachment with Kant, but insists that morality has no meaning without systems of rules. (96) Intention is decisive; it ties the agent to the action. The Gita robs actions of their moral qualities by detaching them from their agents. (98) This has some resemblance to Nietzsche’s position. (99)

Danto thinks that Chinese philosophy will help illuminate the essential Indian position, and so he turns to Taoism in the final chapter. I find this transition startling. He finds Westerners attracted to the Tao Te Ching on account of their distrust of intellect and language. There is a tacit assumption, to be found in Wittgenstein as well, that “the structure of the world must be antecedently linguistic.” The notion of an ideal language that mirrors the structure of the world is chimerical. This notion not only pervades Western philosophy but can be found in the Confucian rectification of names. (101-2) The Tao Te Ching and the Chuang Tzu devalue prepositional knowledge and are practice-oriented. Danto objects to the conflation of the two. (103-4) “There is in any case no possible way of assimilating discursive to practical knowledge or conversely. . .” (104)

Knowledge as performance and representation is irreducibly duplex, and Lao Tzu is essentially correct when he implies that words, used at least descriptively, are logically external to the reality they record, and that there is a dimension of existence that could not possibly be put in words. The rest of his teaching is a deprecation of one sort of knowledge in favor of another. (105)
Practical knowledge admits of gradations of mastery. “The Way is smooth to those who know it.” The Taoist landscape is misty, and doesn’t lead to a definite goal. (105) Lao Tzu is contrasted to Dante: the former has no particular destination, nor can he get lost, nor does Lao Tzu struggle against the grain. (106)

Danto interprets wu wei (non-doing) as immobility, a notion he finds most explicitly developed by the Legalists, the ideal social architecture being a rigid hierarchical structure. Taoism vaguely promises a superior philosophy of government, paradoxically insinuating a superior capacity to dominate. It was inevitable that Taoism would degenerate into yet another superstition-saturated religion. (108-9) Comparisons are made to Indian religion.

The Tao Te Ching naturally appeals to artists, especially in reference to those moments of peak creative flow in which “struggle and externality” vanish. Hence the perpetual tendency, also religious, to glorify simplicity, charity, the lowly, and anti-intellectualism. (110-1). The Taoist literature recommends a minimalist approach to government while orienting itself towards the eccentric, independent individual. This is a form of romantic escapism in contrast to the duty-bound Confucian mind. No wonder then the eventual symbiosis between Confucianism and Taoism, the former longing for the life of the latter. (112-3)

Only when we come to Confucianism do we finally encounter genuine moral ideas. (114ff) Confucianism is moralistic in character and light on metaphysical concerns. It is the least “oriental” of the philosophies concerned. The others are inappropriate for moral guidance, and perhaps this is true for all religion. (120)

I find Danto's conclusions concerning Chinese philosophy disturbing. He places a reactionary philosophy like Confucianism ahead of the others because of its moralism and social orientation. What then of critique of the social order? Danto offers shrewd observations all the way through the book and he is correct about the weaknesses of Taoism, and perhaps he even draws some valid parallels to the Indian philosophies discussed. But the most influential texts of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching and the Chuang Tzu, abstracted from the traditions in which they became embedded, are the most doctrinally and metaphysically minimalist of anything passing for a sacred scripture ever written. Granted, they are inadequate as a positive guide to life and they offer no determinate negation of the feudal order. Their advocacy of naturalness implies a static world view, but then a return to nature is characteristically a reaction of protest against a corrupt civilization. The genius of these two Taoist texts lies in irony and critical orientation, a via negativa that abstractly addresses the problem of reification. Nowhere does one find the demented justification of violence one finds in the Bhagavad Gita. While I understand the abstract parallels, equating these two works to Buddhism and especially to Hinduism is almost tantamount to an obscenity. Of all the belief systems discussed, only these two Chinese Taoist texts stand out as gems shining amidst the filth of their civilizations.

Danto wrote this book in the thick of the counterculture of the '60s-70s, from a distant though needed vantage point. In another book perhaps he might have said more about the contemporary appeal of these ideas. The more carefully you read between the lines, the more clues you will find as to why some of the general ideas behind these systems, if to a much less extent the specifics, were able to diffuse in the contemporary West as they did. The impersonal, mechanistic, and amoral aspects of these world views, with a good percentage of their original mythic, superstitious, and social content conveniently downplayed or metaphoricized into oblivion, could readily be contoured to the discontents of a modern, mechanistic, depersonalized society disillusioned with conventional moralism, legalism, and deliberative rationality. So much so, that the majority of mystic-minded consumers, naive and ungrounded in historical consciousness, could be manipulated, cajoled, or sold on extremely pernicious, sociopathic notions without recognition of their implications.

Christopher Lasch's The Minimal Self: A Portrait of Psychological Terrorism
Taoism & the Tao of Bourgeois Philosophy (review of J. J. Clarke, The Tao of the West)
Occultism, Eastern Mysticism, Fascism, & Countercultures: Selected Bibliography
Holistic Thought, New Age Obscurantism, Occultism, the Sciences, & Fascism
Secularism, science and the Right” (Review of Meera Nanda, The Wrongs of the Religious Right: Reflections on Science, Secularism and Hindutva)

Labels: , , ,

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

Labels: ,

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?"


The Legitimacy of Chinese Philosophy (1)

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

Editors' Introduction (Carine Defoort & Ge Zhaoguang)
Modern Construction and Explanatory Models of the History of Philosophy (Zhao Dunhua)
A False But Meaningful Issue: A Reading of the "Legitimacy Issue in Chinese Philosophy" (Yu Wujin)
On the New Round of Comparative Studies of Chinese and Western Philosophical Types (Yu Xuanmeng)
Reflections on the Legitimacy of the Discipline of Chinese Philosophy Under the Discursive Hegemony of the West (Li Jinglin)
The Legitimacy of the Discussions on the "Legitimacy" of "Chinese Philosophy" (Hu Jun)
Western Discourse and Shadows in the Legitimacy Crisis of Chinese Philosophy (Qiao Qingju)
The Legitimacy and Consciousness of Chinese Philosophy: An Analysis of the Issue of the Legitimacy of Chinese Philosophy (Chen Renren)
The "Legitimacy" of Chinese Philosophy (Wei Changbao)

A body of thought preoccupied by its identity crisis is in deep trouble. All non-Western civilizations that have undergone disruption through contact with the imperial West and have faced the problems of modernization have endured such a crisis. In some cases, the very discipline of "philosophy" is inaugurated and defined by this crisis, the most extreme case being African Philosophy. Chinese philosophy has a respected literary tradition dating back thousands of years, yet it too faced this crisis, and judging from recent writings in the field, has yet to resolve it.

Paradoxically, no indigenous development in a formally defined non-western philosophical tradition, no matter how nationalistic it may purport to be, proceeds without collusion with Western interests. This has been true ever since Western incursions into China and India yielded ideological alliances with the religious traditions most congenial to the interests of the West. The most recent wave of irrationalism can be loosely termed postmodernism, and it has given a whole new lease on life to all the obscurantist intellectual ambitions of the irrationalist wings of the nations, cultures, and political movements of the world.

There are numerous linkages of Western philosophical interests with Chinese philosophy. There is a long-standing preoccupation with Eastern mysticism which more recently comes under the rubric of New Age thought. A more recent academic wrinkle is the cross-breeding of hermeneutics and deconstruction with Taoism and Confucianism, and there persists a long-standing collusion of these Chinese philosophies with the less fashionable but apparently still alive-and-kicking process philosophy initiated by Alfred North Whitehead. Such collusions have become intensified with the rage of globalization, the ideological effects of which I have termed "globalization gone bad".

This symposium on The Legitimacy of Chinese Philosophy is not quite so egregious, yet it seems to reflect a conceptual impasse. Almost all (if not all) of the participants in this Part III of the discussion are stationed in the People's Republic of China and are apparently locked into a struggle with China's premodern doctrines, its previous commitment to Marxism, the challenges of globalization, and the dilemma of cultural identity.

"Chinese philosophy" has come to be dismissed or lauded as non-philosophy by Western commentators. Hegel's comments against Chinese philosophy as non-systematic and non-conceptual in content are cited by several authors. (Zhao, 5; Yu Wujin, 22; Yu Xuanmeng, 40; Chen, 77) But Chinese philosophy is praised for those very same reasons by no less than Jacques Derrida, when he visited China in 2002: "China has no philosophy, only thought." Derrida considered Western philosophy to be logocentric, which he opposed, and thus demoting it to the status of "writing", could not have been happier in his ignorance than to praise Chinese philosophy as non-philosophical. (Zhao, 5, 7; Chen, 78, 86)

As a discipline, the history of Chinese philosophy dates from the 1920s and the efforts of Chinese scholars such as Feng Youlan and Hu Shi. Later, the Stalinist model was imported from the USSR and imposed on Chinese history of philosophy. "Western discursive hegemony" can not be faulted, as all modern people must evaluate all philosophies with appropriate modern tools of analysis. Western philosophy is said to be predicated on the Metaphysics of Being, but one should not be hasty in judging Chinese philosophy if it does not appear to fit this model. Just because the Chinese language lacks the copula and doesn't name the category of "being", one should not assume a lack of systematicity. Nor should Chinese philosophy be deemed lacking in focus on philosophical questions, just because the hermeneutical models applied to it did not find what they sought.

On the other hand, one should be wary of an emphasis on Chinese particularity and assertions of the universality of the particular. A proper model can be found in the example of the Jews. The strong cultural identity of Jews notwithstanding, it did not become "an obstacle to the creation of universal theories." Jewish thinkers "never made 'Jewish characteristics' the objective of their theories, but instead sought universal truths that were everywhere applicable." (Zhao, 17)

Yu Wujin summarizes shoddy scholarly practices (27) and enumerates four negative factors in traditional ways of thinking (28-29):

(1) empiricism factor (inability to consider fundamental epistemological problems beyond sensory experience, as did Kant and Husserl);

(2) psychologizing factor (Confucian ethics based on psychological premises);

(3) cavemanship factor (basing arguments only on evidence consistent with preconceived positions);

(4) pragmatism factor (lack of interest in abstract concepts and categories and the issue of truth, and excessive concern with usefulness).

Yu Wujin upbraids the Chinese for lagging behind in logic and linguistic analysis.

Yu Xuanmeng insists that Chinese philosophy must free itself of dependence on Western philosophy. Ancient Chinese philosophers were almost all known as sages. This is quite different from the Western preoccupation with ontology, which also pervades ethics and separates the latter from the personal wisdom of the philosopher. This has become the pretext for dismissing China's age-old preoccupation with the right way to live.

Li addresses the issue of disciplinary paradigms. The founders of the historiography of Chinese philosophy, Hu Shi and Feng Youlan, organized their research along the paradigms of Western philosophy. Feng found the Chinese emphasis to be self-cultivation, but he found an approximate equivalent to Western philosophy in yi li zhi xue (the learning of meaning and principle). (43) Zhang Dainian (1937) sought a universal philosophy of which he saw Chinese philosophy and others as subcategories. Li deems this 'universal philosophy' an empty category. Li finds Jin Yuelin's conception more complex. (44) Prior to 1949, Chinese philosophical research was characterized by (1) free choice in interpretive principles, (2) immersion of scholars in traditional thought. Between 1949 and 1979 a rigid Marxist model was mandatory. The cumulative effect of extrinsic assessments and the treatment of philosophies as an abstract battle of tendencies drained the life of the traditions being studied. (47-48) Since 1979, research has become more open and pluralist.

Li attempts to rethink the relation of particular to universal, finding the universal in the individual and particular. (51). The interpretive process (between Chinese and Western thought) needs to be bidirectional. The academic relationship between fen (division) and tong (commonality) needs to be balanced. The Confucian tradition knew the principle "seek knowledge at all levels" but tied this quest to human relationships and practice. It would be a mistake to sever this connection (56-57) Li even brings in Heidegger and Jaspers to justify his position! (58) Heidegger referred to the crisis brought on by technology and to Chinese thought, but rejected the possibility of importing Eastern world views to solve the spiritual crisis of the West. Heidegger asserted: "Thought can only be changed by means of thought that has the same origins and missions." And: "There is still only one God who can bring us salvation." (58)

Another nail in the coffin of the Nazi philosopher, if you ask me. This position reminds me of another fascist thinker, Carl Jung.

Li sees promise for a philosophical convergence between the two civilizations in the contemporary emphasis on hermeneutics. (60) I think I'm going to be sick.

Hu begins with a basic problem: there is an inherent presumption in impartially assessing the philosophical value of traditional Chinese thought, as the very language of philosophical arbitration prejudges the issue. The term "philosophy" was imported into China in the 1890s. It presupposed a disciplinary division of scholarship hitherto absent in China. Just as China did not have "philosophy", it also did not have "economics", "biology", etc. China had no such disciplines. But neither did Socrates. It should not be assumed that, lacking disciplines, China simply lacked an investment in the subject matters those disciplines study. There is also no point in seeking purism. The modern Chinese language itself reflects the penetration of modern modes of discourse into Chinese culture, and thus modern Chinese offers no privileged entryway into traditional Chinese thought.

Qiao sees the radical changes in Chinese culture in the 20th century as the logical outcome of the Opium War. Chinese thought was uprooted as a living tradition and turned into a detached object of study. This was a traumatic development for traditionally minded scholars. All research conducted in the history of Chinese philosophy is essentially comparative research in Chinese and Western philosophy. Without this, the weaknesses (logic and epistemology) and strengths of Chinese philosophy (social philosophy and moral practice) could never have been assessed. While using Western philosophy as a backdrop may diminish the stature of Chinese philosophy, it need not always be so. (Mou Zongsan judged Wang Yangming superior to Kant.) (72) No matter how much nationalistically minded philosophers might wish to shake the allegedly hegemonic discourse of the West, it can't be done, because without it, contemporary Chinese would not be able to understand Chinese philosophy. A return to traditional intellectual tools is no longer feasible. (73)

Chen contrasts the judgments of Hegel and Derrida. The history of academic study of Chinese philosophy is briefly recounted, from the establishment of a school and then department of Chinese philosophy in Beijing (1914, 1919), the works of Hu Shi (1919) and Feng Youlan (1930s), to the establishment of the Marxist paradigm based on Soviet textbooks. In 1955 Zhang Dainian initiated a promising line of research into "the categories and system of traditional Chinese philosophy", which did not get the opportunity to bear fruit until the 1980s. (79) This was an effort to correct forced interpretations of Chinese philosophy. Two key articles in 2001 and 2002 raised the question of the legitimacy of Chinese philosophy. Ge Zhaoguang completed a two-volume History of Chinese Thought, using the term "thought" as less restrictive and forced than "philosophy". (80) The backdrop to the whole issue was the sense of Western superiority with which China adopted Western learning. The term for "philosophy" (zhexue) was introduced in 1874 by the Japanese scholar Nishi Amane and was adopted in China in 1905. Hu Shi's work on Chinese philosophy created an impression as if it were written by a Westerner. After China opened up again in the 1980s new perspectives on both Western culture and Marxism (including Western Marxism) were in the making.

The social problems of contemporary China and those of Western society have stimulated a resurgence of respectful consideration of traditional Chinese academic values. Two factors are adduced:

(1) recognition of the flaws of Western society, Western engagement with postmodernism and Eastern wisdom, encouraging a Chinese return to tradition as a cultural resource (cf. contemporary neo-Confucianism);

(2) strengthening of local consciousness in the age of globalization. (83)

Western philosophy itself has no universal standard for what constitutes philosophical legitimacy, hence Chinese philosophy need not be doubted in this regard, and certainly it was guided by a love of wisdom. Hence, it is worthwhile pursuing a national tradition while remaining open to other influences.

Wei finds that after a century of the existence of Chinese philosophy as a formal academic field of study, notwithstanding its dependency and legitimacy issues, Chinese philosophy is making a comeback, with much to contribute. The way forward is for China to create its own philosophical paradigm, and maintain the subjectivity and indigenous perspective of Chinese philosophy while incorporating Western philosophy.

This hollow rhetoric, devoid of specifics as to what is ultimately philosophically valuable, suggests what is sterile about this entire debate. Occasionally there are brief suggestions of the specific areas in which Chinese philosophy (or "thought") is held to be weak or strong, but there is no convincing treatment of what in the past is worth preserving, or how we are supposed to assess it in any event given what we know now. Whether a pro or con position on "Chinese philosophy" is taken, all of this discussion revolves around the commensurability of the Western and Chinese traditions. In spite of the tendency for focus on disciplinarity to reduce to pedantic distinctions, that need not happen if the distinctions reveal something intrinsic to the systems of thought involved. Yet for all this deliberation, the essential intrinsic questions remain untouched.


The Dead End of African Philosophy: Which Way Out?
Chinese Philosophy in the West: Globalization Gone Bad (1)
The Tao of Brecht
Taoism & the Tao of Bourgeois Philosophy (review of J. J. Clarke, The Tao of the West)
Occultism, Eastern Mysticism, Fascism, & Countercultures: Selected Bibliography
Holistic Thought, New Age Obscurantism, Occultism, the Sciences, & Fascism
The Graphic Figure and the Philosophical Abstraction by Ion Banu
Secularism, science and the Right” (Review of Meera Nanda, The Wrongs of the Religious Right: Reflections on Science, Secularism and Hindutva)


Saturday, January 6, 2007

Reason's Greetings

This is my first attempt to set up my own blog using standard blogware. I previously created two blogs on my web site as straightforward HTML files without standard features and without interactivity. It will take some time to work out the conversion parameters, so here are the URL for posts previous to this date.

For this blog, started on 10 July 2006, you can access backfiles beginning with:

Studies in a Dying Culture

See also my other blog:

Emergence Blog

I just started a third blog, a true blog, on Freethought Forum, devoted to conceptual and sociological issues concerning religion, superstition, atheism, freethought, and secularism:

Reason & Society

I am going to approach interactivity with some caution. Before I'm fully set up, or after, feel free to contact me at my default e-mail address, which you will see on my site.