Ivácson András Áron, MA (Philosophy), BA (Anthropology), Universitatea Babeș-Bolyai, Faculty of History and Philosophy
When one hears about the differences in Eastern and Western forms of thought, there are a number of problems that arise. First among these is that “Eastern thought” and “Western thought” in and of themselves are such large categories, containing so many tendencies that it is immensely difficult, if not impossible, to draw such general conclusions. Hence these generalized conclusions are types of, in better cases superficial thought experiments, in worse cases orientalism, but in both cases gross simplifications.
Another problem is that beyond the differences, there are a number of similarities that most of the time are sidelined for the sake of demonstration how Eastern philosophy is “actually not philosophy at all.” This is due to the fact that in some questions and some fundamental aspects, Eastern thought developed in a different manner and reached different conclusions compared to its Western counterpart. Of course: Western philosophy is seen as “the one real philosophy” and anything different is “actually not philosophy at all.”
In this short article I aim to highlight a difference and a similarity to show how the different conceptualizations of similar premises can lead both to different and similar conclusions. My own example is quite succinct: having a training in Western philosophy, I wasn’t prepared to encounter Chinese thought which I have been researching for quite some time now. I was wholly surprised by the depth I encountered, since sadly I myself used to subscribe to the above-mentioned orientalism, having a formal training in a specifically Western academic milieu.
Knowledge acquired and applied from East to West
In his book The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics, Chinese philosopher Yuk Hui claims that the fundamental difference between “Eastern” and “Western” “thought” is that while in the Western tendency cosmology was dominant, in the Eastern form it was cosmotechnics. Going back to the ancient Greek roots of these terms, we see that cosmology is cosmos + logos, i.e. the rationalization, the interpretation and understanding of the cosmos, of being, of reality. On the other hand, cosmotechnics comes from cosmos + tekhné, where tekhné stands in for “tool”, “skill”, “application”. It therefore implies a form of knowledge that from the start is not simply gathered for its own sake. This explicitly needs to be applied to change and expand, as well as improve the complex relational systems found in the cosmos, being and reality.
This does not mean that there is no Eastern cosmology and no Western cosmotechnics, but the degrees of their prominence are different. Yuk Hui makes a great point of how various terms in the Eastern and Western forms of philosophy cannot be compared one to one. So, the pairing he makes between “tekhné” and 器 (qì), the latter also meaning various forms of “tool”, “skill”, “application” is only as good as the relation of the two that enables them to be at the precise point of their joint analysis. By this Yuk Hui means that comparison of two terms like this only works in relation to one another directly when you are comparing them. There is no universal comparison between different cultures, only concrete contextual relation during analysis. As a consequence of this there will always be a degree of alienation between any given two cultural milieus. To see the difference in cosmological and cosmotechnical thinking, let’s take the example of the concept of “society” and apply this kind of analysis to it.
Going back to the ancient Greek roots of these terms, we see that cosmology is cosmos + logos, i.e. the rationalization, the interpretation and understanding of the cosmos, of being, of reality. On the other hand, cosmotechnics comes from cosmos + tekhné, where tekhné stands in for “tool”, “skill”, “application”. It therefore implies a form of knowledge that from the start is not simply gathered for its own sake.
Western democracy and Chinese authoritarianism? Only superficially
One fully immersed in Western culture would be inclined to say that, when it comes to the question of society, the difference is that in the West, we see democracy, and in the East, we see authoritarianism. Side stepping just how infuriatingly ideological and simplified this is, let’s remind our friends who think like this that at the root of Western social thinking, we find Plato who – one could say quite justifiably – loathed democracy and had nothing but scorn for it. If you read the part of Plato’s Republic where they are discussing the four forms of government – aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny – Plato through Socrates says that democracy is only one step better than outright tyranny: it is not tyranny of one man, but the tyranny of the mediocre masses.
Therefore, saying that Western thought has democracy and the individual at the root of its philosophy about society is quite misguided. Most people would be quite baffled to learn that the Western philosophical thought about society, on the contrary, is fundamentally based on a scathing criticism of democracy. This features especially in a collectivist critique aimed at semi-individualist democracy, since there was no clear concept of the “individual” in ancient Greek philosophy. There was merely zoon politikon, the “political animal”, member of the polis, the city state. This is another important issue worth pondering over with our crusading ultra-democratic Western friends.
The same way, most people simply have no idea just how much of Chinese philosophy deals with the individual and its rights, thoughts, aspects and relation to society. Therefore: to claim that Chinese philosophy and thinking is nothing but collectivist anti-individualist authoritarianism – again sidestepping the meaninglessness of this word – is quite superficial. For instance, beyond the collectivism of Confucius, there is the almost solipsist individualism of Zhuang Zi, as just two examples.
Even these are debatable, with both of them having semi-individualist and collectivist tendencies regarding various different issues. One could also mention Mozi and his school of Mohism and most importantly Han Fei Zi and the Legalist school. Both were predominantly collectivist schools of thought, yet they harshly criticized Confucius, his thought and his followers. One instance where both Mo Zi and Han Fei Zi criticizes Confucianism is the funeral rites. Depending on circumstances Confucian funeral rites sometimes prescribed mourning that lasted over six months. Both the Mohists and the Legalists rightfully claimed that such extreme rituals arrested vast segments of the population to the point that they endangered the functioning of society.
Plato through Socrates says that democracy is only one step better than outright tyranny: it is not tyranny of one man, but the tyranny of the mediocre masses. Therefore, saying that Western thought has democracy and the individual at the root of its philosophy about society is quite misguided.
To claim that Chinese philosophy and thinking is nothing but collectivist anti-individualist authoritarianism – again sidestepping the meaninglessness of this word – is quite superficial. For instance, beyond the collectivism of Confucius, there is the almost solipsist individualism of Zhuang Zi, as just two examples.
One against the many vs. few for the many and the many for the few
Chinese thought of society has been mediated by the two related terms of 家 (jiā) and 国 (guó). The first means roughly “home” and “family”, while the latter roughly can mean “country”, “empire” and “home” as in “country of birth” or “home country.” One can see that the rabid individualizing seen in Western philosophy, especially political philosophy, is nowhere to be found here. At best the individual is a collective subject as constituted by its relation to a family, a community, a people and a country. Sidestepping the word “nation” as a translation was deliberate on my part: “people” is a much more realistic and ideologically less loaded term.
Based on this, a relevant difference between Eastern and Western philosophy when it comes to the question of society could be that in the East, the primary contradiction is between the small, immediate community and the community at large, the people as such, the country and the ruling power. In the West this same primary contradiction could be said to always be between the individual as such and the collective as such. The debate here is very interesting. To me the most important aspect is that large tendencies of Eastern thought realized early on that within a society there is no such thing as “individual as such”.
The individual is always, and I cannot stress this enough, constituted as a part of a larger or smaller whole, but is always part of a collective. There is no such thing as a singular individual. For there to be a singular individual, that would be wholly incompatible with any kind of even smaller collective, or community, not to mention of a society as a totality – since no matter how plural it likes to picture itself, each and every society is a totality exactly for the same reason there can be no singular individual.
Were such a subject possible, it would have a totally singular language, culture, form and mode of thinking, feeling, reacting and thus completely incompatible with any society, since this is what a complete individual would be like. A collection of absolutely singular individuals that are unable even to communicate does not make a society. As things stand today: materially speaking two snowflakes further differ from one another than two people – no pun intended here.
The same way a society is always a totality: it imposes a general language, a general culture, mode and form of thinking, some even forms of reacting and feeling. This doesn’t mean there isn’t any variety, but regardless, we are still dealing with a totality and more importantly a totalizing tendency that by definition homogenizes and brushes over some of the differences. This is one of the reasons the word authoritarianism is meaningless: there never existed a society in the entirety of world history that didn’t impose one form or another of authority.
This is as much true of Western as of Eastern societies. The difference between two societies is not a question of principle, but merely of degree for whatever reasons. Exactly because of this, the really interesting question to me isn’t that of authoritarianism, but if a non-authoritarian society is even possible at all, and if possible, should it be something one should strive to achieve.
Permanence of being versus making due with chaos under heaven
Now then, how does the relation of cosmology and cosmotechnics play into all this? One could make a radical case that Western thought had to arrive to Marx until it realized that the aim of accumulating knowledge is ultimately to change the world and the material conditions found therein. It is quite possible that Western thought did not conceptualize such a radical shift regarding reality before Marx. In Western conceptions of reality, especially the religious ones, it is a done deal: reality is God’s or the gods’ perfect creation that not only does it not need, but abhors any human intervention, even the mere thought of such an intervention.
One telling story of this is right at the roots of Western thought. The story of Prometheus is explicitly a tale against cosmotechnics. The world is ordained to be as it is by the gods of the pantheon and if you aim to change it, you will be severely punished for all eternity: even if you yourself are a god. Prometheus giving fire to humanity and thus setting the entire progress and evolution of human societies in motion is a tale explicitly about giving humanity skill with which they can change the reality around them to better suit their social and individual needs. The gods abhorring this is the reminder that Western thought is dominated by cosmology: learn what reality is, but never change it, don’t go against tradition and the trodden path, especially not in a way that puts your gods on alert. Humanity becoming conscious through skill is the par excellence cosmological horror for a culture basing itself on immutable preordained cultural norms.
Chinese thinking on the other hand inherently has this cosmotechnical thinking within it due to the fact that reality is in most cases conceptualized as a given that needs to be changed to suit the needs of those inhabiting this given reality and thus to further facilitate harmonious human existence within its bounds. This means reality doesn’t simply need to be changed, but to be improved for human life. To balance: a striking exception to this rule in Chinese thought is Taoism in general and the philosophy of Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi in particular, both espousing philosophies of wuwei (无为), or inaction. Despite this, solipsist and politically uninvolved tendencies in Chinese thought are an exception and not the general rule.
Western thought is dominated by cosmology: learn what reality is, but never change it.
Chinese thinking on the other hand, [states that] reality doesn’t simply need to be changed, but to be improved for human life.
In Chinese culture we can see two very poignant examples of changing reality, and society, through skill for the betterment of humanity. Our first example is a short story by the great Chinese writer and story teller of the Qing dynasty, Pu Songling. One of his stories features a scholar moving into an abandoned temple and making a home for himself there. Through the various twists and turns of the story he befriends two women who died long ago, but their ghosts haunt the temple. One of the strongest points of the story comes when the scholar teaches the two ghosts how to read and write, because earlier customs barred them from learning these skills. This is an explicit example of using skill to fundamentally alter reality – since within the context of the story a ghost is a part of reality on its most fundamental level. Through this Pu Songling signifies that 器, skill and its application is the only way to make reality and society better and more harmonious for anyone inhabiting it.
The second comes from modern Chinese history and especially the era of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The movie Breaking with Old Ideas from 1975 features a scene in which a rural peasant youth is promoted and allowed to attend higher education which prompts him to bow before the village officials and CPC representatives as a show of thankfulness and respect. At this gesture, the school headmaster jumps to his feet and scolds him: “No, young man, here we don’t follow Confucian manners.” This is explicitly against the convoluted Confucian manners and rituals that used to govern imperial Chinese society until modernity and were attacked after 1949. This kind of cosmotechnics that changes tradition in order to better manage a society, especially one as large as China, grew to the level of national and state campaign during the Criticize Lin Biao, Criticize Confucius (批林批孔运动) campaign that lasted from 1973 all the way to 1976.
No investigation, no right to speak: a moderately prosperous society
This is all the more visible when thinking of “society” in Eastern philosophies. In China the well-known phrase of building a “moderately prosperous society” (小康社会) has been repeated more and more in the last few years, especially during the tenure of President Hu Jintao, but few know how far that term actually goes back. It was first elaborated on by Confucius, but it goes all the way back to the Book of Songs (11th – 7th century BC), and exactly for the reason to bridge the gap between the concepts of family and state/country/empire with a series of middle level institutions and social classes. This is an interesting contradiction within the thought of Confucianism that more than anything meant to preserve a social order, yet in this aspect it explicitly aimed to change it with again the aim of improving on it. “Moderately prosperous society” as a modern political term goes back to Deng Xiaoping using it in 1979 to describe the eventual goal of Chinese modernization as it was laid out by the Reform and Opening Up (改革开放) program.
In other words, to create a unified thinking and material reality of something the west calls a “society”. The role of thinking about social issues in Eastern philosophy has always had a communal and collective root at heart. Create a reality and a communal-collective form of being in that reality that can take care and nurture the largest masses of living beings inhabiting that reality. Society wasn’t created for the individual, but for the collective and this is a significant difference at the root of social thinking that led Chinese social history on an entirely different historical path compared to the west. One absolutely huge and stark difference is that in China the concept of individual land ownership never developed: land has always been and still is either collectively owned or owned by the state. You cannot buy land in China, not even today, you can only lease it from the government for differing amounts of years based on the goals you might have with that land.
Although Yuk Hui doesn’t go into this, one could even make the case that Marx had such a strong and wide reception in China exactly because what Marx ultimately said, reality and material conditions have to be submitted to the needs of the collective inhabiting it, the collective and not the individual (!) – wasn’t exactly new in China. On the contrary: it always already was part of the philosophical milieu. Marx merely said it in a modern and revolutionary manner.
This is also the reason, or at least one of the reasons, for the large-scale social campaigns that encompassed the entirety of Chinese society both before and after 1949. It is also the same reason why one of the founding principles and leading guidelines up to this day of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics has been the fact that unlike in the West, Marxism in China developed not antagonistic to the local culture, cultural norms and philosophical traditions, but on the contrary: building on the main cosmotechnical tendency within them, being rooted in them at every step and turn. Not least also because Marxism is inherently a collectivist form of thinking and whatever individualism it might harbor within itself, it is merely a contingency. In this sense Marxism was more at home in China than it ever was in the West.
Reality and material conditions have to be submitted to the needs of the collective inhabiting it, the collective and not the individual.
From West to East in the end means from orientalism to decolonization
This single issue can demonstrate that the relation between East and West can only be one of substance when it is not generalized into superficial absurdities. Orientalist tropes of Eastern people being masses of mindless, manipulated drones are just the most well-known examples of this kind of racist attitude, but the problem runs much deeper. The seemingly benign trope of all Eastern people being this kind of mild, laid back, mystical, overtly spiritual persons is the same story even if it is sold as a positive vision. Meanwhile the complete opposite of absolute atheist can just as easily be found among them, that undermines this line of superficial thinking of all “Eastern people” as mystical. The end product is the same, one method or the other: masses of people robbed of their agency, thought, and peculiarities to better suit the needs of a still colonizing West that hides behind words like “risk analysis” and “security-politics” to arbitrarily pass judgement on everyone but itself.
Opposing this risk analysis/security politics-based orientalism one should build upon extensive research and knowledge, a complex, dialectical and materialist view that takes into consideration not only the different historical trajectories Eastern and Western cultures, societies and philosophies took, but also the immensely negative effect Western ones had on Eastern ones through colonization. A holistic worldview that gives ample respect to the various and sometimes wildly differing cultures, philosophies and tendencies can only be one based on decolonization. This decolonization though will start very slowly in the West, since it will have to start with the destruction of the West’s self-image as universal, all-encompassing, all-knowing guardian of freedom and happiness. It won’t be easy, but it has to be done and the sooner, the better.
About the author:
Ivácson András Áron is a former journalist living in Romania. His main interests are History of Philosophy, Comparative Philosophy, Socialism, Chinese History and Philosophy, and the History of Chinese Socialism. He graduated from Babeș-Bolyai University, Cluj Napoca, Romania with an MA in Philosophy in 2017 and a BA in Anthropology in 2012.
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Painting of the Beauties of “Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦)”
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