Recently I’ve been watching some philosophy programmes from Beijing Open University. It’s a slow process—transcribing as I go—but good as a way of practising my Chinese. I have realised that when it comes to language learning, you need to make use of materials that are themselves interesting. So when I bought Harry Potter (or Hali Bote 哈利波特) in Chinese because I thought it might be a good, easy read, I forgot that I’d never had the slightest desire to read more than three pages of the English version, so I really shouldn’t have been surprised when trying to read the book in Chinese did not improve the experience for me. You’d think that reading five pages of philosophy in Chinese would be more arduous than reading five pages of Harry Potter; but in Chinese, as in English, I find that the reverse is true.
Anyway, in the search for more interesting ways to improve my Chinese, I’ve been watching and transcribing these Beijing Open University programmes about philosophy, and they’ve been pretty entertaining and—occasionally—informative. And one thing that has struck me repeatedly in watching these shows is how the various scholars and talking heads are hung up on an idea of Chinese philosophy as something special. Not just something special as in something that has its own shape, form and history (everything is special in this sense), but something that is especially special: something that goes further, higher or deeper than any other philosophical tradition; something, very often, that non-Chinese philosophers are said to be unable to understand because, well, they are not Chinese; and something that has given Chinese philosophy a kind of higher historical destiny, almost a mystical function in the history of the world.
I am fascinated and intrigued by Chinese thought; but at the same time I am highly suspicious of these kinds of notions. They have the air of chauvinism. And I find the mysticism of these kinds of claims worrying, in part because if something is mystical, then you don’t need to think terribly hard about it—and this doesn’t seem much like philosophy at all.
Philosopher A: “How does this thing relate to that thing?”
Philosopher B: “Oh, it’s mystical, don’t you know?”
Philosopher A: “Yes, but how? By what mechanism?”
Philosopher B: “Mechanism? What kind of profane language is this? That which is mystical transcends all mechanisms…”
You get the idea. It’s seems to me that the assertion of the inherent rightness of any particular system of thought, and the notion that any one philosophical tradition might have some kind of mystically assured historical destiny, are both forms of cultural chauvinism that we might be better off without.
Nevertheless, this is a kind of chauvinism to which philosophers are often decidedly prone. And it is certainly not found only amongst commentators on Chinese philosophy. It also exists in European traditions. And it exists in the American traditions too, but I’ll stick to Europe for the purposes of this blog. Think of Emmanuel Levinas, who claims that philosophy is “the Bible and the Greeks” (no sign of Confucius or of Nāgārjuna, for example); or take the following passage from Husserl’s The Crisis of the European Sciences, written in the 1930s:
Europe’s greatest danger is weariness. If we struggle against this greatest of all dangers as “good Europeans” with the sort of courage that does not fear even an infinite struggle, then out of the destructive blaze of lack of faith, the smouldering fire of despair over the West’s mission for humanity, the ashes of great weariness, will rise up the phoenix of a new life-inwardness and spiritualization as the pledge of a great and distant future for man: for the spirit alone is immortal.
Now, there are many things to admire about Europe. We do cheese, for example, better than anywhere else on earth. We Europeans (yes, island-dwelling British readers, I am including you in this category) are masterful in our making of cheese. But when Husserl is talking about the historical destiny of Europe, he is—I think that it is safe to assume—not talking about cheese. And I think that the very idea that any one system of thought might bear with it a “mission for humanity” is, at best, overweening hubris, and at worst a dangerous delusion. These kinds of ideas do nobody any favours. They entrench ignorance by killing off curiosity, and this chauvinism and belligerence can often be used to shore-up broader forms of political chauvinism and belligerence. And this is a very bad thing indeed.
As Jay Garfield writes in his book Empty Words: Buddhist Philosophy and Cross-Cultural Interpretation (2002),
to treat philosophy as denoting something the Greeks and their German descendants did, and therefore as comprising nothing Asian, commits one to two grave errors: either one presumes falsely that no Asian ever did what the Greeks and Germans did (think reflectively about the nature of things) or one presumes that there is something terribly special about such reflection when done in Athens or Freiburg.
The same goes, of course, for Beijing or Shanghai. So it seems to me that philosophers, in general—wherever they come from—might do well to begin from a more modest starting-point when they think about what philosophy is and what philosophy can do. A sensible base-line seems to be this: to assume that philosophy is a matter, as Garfield says, of reflecting about the nature of things; to recognise that this is a human activity, that it’s one of the things that we do; and to see that our thinking about things is always necessarily within various kinds of traditions, conditions and contexts. In this light, perhaps also we need a sense that thinking is a kind of discovery, whether in relation to traditions we recognise as ‘our own’, or else in relation to other traditions, so that we can both be open to entertaining thoughts and possibilities from elsewhere, and also begin to rethink ideas from closer to home. And finally, we need to simply be on guard against the ideological assertion that this or that system of thought is somehow inherently and mystically supreme.
It is this openness to new possibilities (without taking leave of our critical faculties), and this willingness to rethink, that can best guard against this kind of philosophical chauvinism. Otherwise it seems to me that what passes for philosophy ends up with the kind of determined ignorance that is perfectly exemplified by this short fragment of dialogue from the film, My Big Fat Greek Wedding:
Gus: Now, gimme a word, any word, and I’ll show you how the root of that word is Greek. Okay? How about arachnophobia? Arachna, that comes from the Greek word for spider, and phobia is a phobia, is mean fear. So, fear of spider, there you go.
Schoolgirl: Okay, Mr. Portokalos. How about the word kimono?
Young Athena: [whispers] Good one.
Gus: [Pause] Kimono, kimono, kimono. Ha! Of course! Kimono is come from the Greek word himona, is mean winter. So, what do you wear in the wintertime to stay warm? A robe. You see: robe, kimono. There you go!