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« Confucius Institutes are not about Confucius | Main | The Porosity of Culture »

May 29, 2012


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Once again, a very insightful - and, I would say, very deep-reaching post; thank you, Mr Crane. I think you make a very successful argument that Zhuangzi radically deconstructs, at the very least, empirical experience to the point where views are not only incomparable (as you point out with the difference between the quail and the peng) but they also seem to be necessarily so ('非彼無我,非我無所取。'). Zhuangzi's celebration of such difference is practically absolute at points.

But to go back to the Daodejing, rather, one sees that the commonalities and the understandings between any two of the myriad things which make up the Daoist universe are only contingent and conditional. If one can name absolutely the commonalities which exist between any two 'things' (or people, or norms), one is not naming the Way: 道可道,非常道;名可名,非常名。 Laozi and Zhuangzi want to radicalise this insight, as you note, beyond the artificial category of mere 'culture'; but it is still not clear to me that they would reject 'norms' for the reason you cite (namely, that they are such a division).

Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong; my understanding of Daoism is thoroughly undergraduate. But from what I have read and understood of the Zhuangzi and Laozi, they seem concerned with safeguarding each difference and each division as potentially a valid Way (they would not say a deer or a bird or a fish is any less 'seeing' for not perceiving Xishi as having the characteristic of beauty, for example).

This is another fascinating article, on a most interesting and important topic. But I am not sure how the fact that incommensurability/commensurability has historically been a Western problem undermines a claim of cultural incommensurability - rather I would argue that it supports one - depending on what one regards as 'culture'. What it demonstrates is an ontological incommensurability. Ultimately most strands of Western thought deny cultural incommensurability; the notion of multiculturalism is an excellent example, because it is only workable on the premise that all humans are fundamentally similar. Hence, when it encounters cultural systems with which it is ontologically incommensurable (for example radical Islam) it fails.

Culture as a concept should not, I believe, be so readily dismissed - and I wonder whether you are not denying the validity of one viewpoint based on its cultural particularity yet supporting another, equally particular, worldview without providing additional justification. However, I agree with you that a reified notion of culture is a fundamentally flawed concept. What must be understood is that in each case what constitutes 'culture' is ontologically, and therefore qualitatively, different. This is what you have demonstrated here with reference to Zhuangzi.

I am certainly no expert on Chinese philosophy, but it seems to me that the examples you give here demonstrate a cosmology with an ontological basis entirely other to that/those which exist in the West (which is not at all to say that there are no similarities - as I wrote about your and Eric Li's arguments here Please correct me if this is a poor interpretation, but Zhuangzi appears to be asserting the existence of a radical alterity which is only commensurable if one is willing to distance oneself from one's own unique position/nature/perspective and in so doing to become as close as possible to the Way in its essential form, a position from which all alterity is commensurable. However, if one assumes a position entirely at one with the Way, one has surely completely abandoned one's original perspective. As such, whilst one now looks upon a world in which all is commensurable, this perspective is incommensurable with that occupied before.

If my interpetation is at all accurate, then Zhuangzi's cosmology and its ontological principles bear a significant resemblance to current anthropological theories of difference - particularly those of Roy Wagner, Marylin Strathern and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, who draw heavily on the indigenous philosophy of Melanesian and Amerindian peoples. This is a position with which I very much agree; I would argue that 'cultures' are at once commensurable and incommensurable, and are best understood as ontologically distinct perspectives which express a particular cosmology. They are commensurable only if one is willing to abandon entirely one's original perspective (a near-impossible task) - the corollary of which is assuming an alternative perspective which is necessarily incommensurable with the first. As such, in mediating 'cultural' difference, one must attempt to occupy a liminal perspective of 'partial' commensurability (an issue on which the above three anthropologists have written extensively)...if any of that makes any sense at all...

Regardless, you have certainly inspired me to read Zhuangzi!! And sorry for such a long comment...

Thanks for the comments...

Yes, I am pushing hard against "culture." Too hard, I guess. I agree that there is some utility and value to the concept. But I push hard here because I too often see "culture" used in a political manner (I am a political scientist, after all) to defend particular groups of power holders.

I think another issue here for me is cultural interaction and change. I think it is true that, in ancient times, when there was much less interaction and much slower change, that "cultures" might be said to have been incommensurable. But now (let's just say since the 20th century), interaction and change have both significantly accelerated. And this has created more and more people who move between cultures and understand multiple cultures. The expansion of those interstices opens up more possibility for commensurability.

Let's look at China (we will put radical Islam aside - not my specialty - though I would not necessarily say it is somehow shielded from these same dynamics). In the 19th century we might say Chinese culture was incommensurable with "Western" cultures, for the kinds of reasons suggested by Zhuangzi. But now we have within "Chinese culture" the emergence and spread and embrace of practices like scientific rationality (rather averse to a Zhuangzi epistemology) and materialist behavioralism (I'm thinking expansion of market-driven decision making) which have fundamentally changed the culture. From inside "Chinese culture" we now have people, many people, embracing ontologies and epistemologies that were largely alien 150 years ago.
Does this mean that there is no longer a "Chinese culture" (or some complex of "Chinese cultures"?). No, it means that the culture has changed via interaction with others and that there is more ground for inter-cultural commensurability.

And I think this is a two-way street. "Western culture" also changes. Buddhism was once wholly alien. Now it is not. Moreover, the more that people move between China and the West, the more understanding emerges (yes, I know misunderstanding also happens...), and the more recognition of axes of similarity. Confucianism has never been completely inscrutable. Its focus on familial relationships resonates with Western ideals. My father-in-law is the most filial person I have ever know, and he's an Irish Roman Catholic working class guy from Brooklyn who dropped out of school in 10th grade. I don't have to explain to him what filiality is about. He has lived it his whole life. And with accelerated interaction and change more of that is possible...

Just some quick thoughts...

'Confucianism has never been completely inscrutable. Its focus on familial relationships resonates with Western ideals. My father-in-law is the most filial person I have ever know, and he's an Irish Roman Catholic working class guy from Brooklyn who dropped out of school in 10th grade. I don't have to explain to him what filiality is about. He has lived it his whole life. And with accelerated interaction and change more of that is possible...'

This is very true, Mr Crane - and it is a point which bears repeating as often as possible. The basic principles of Confucianism are truly not as alien to Western culture as first appears; as a humanistic philosophy, there are elements of it which of course apply to all humans. Of course, the converse is also true: classical, apostolic Christianity is not as alien to the Chinese experience as it might first appear, since it tends to share a the same key insights into community life, the dignity of human life, the need for cultivation of virtue through education (though of course the teacher and the orientation to the Absolute are somewhat divergent).

That said, though, it is worth noting the ironies in this position. Confucianism isn't about 'change', per se, rather it is about preserving what was worthwhile from the times of Yao and Shun, of Da Yu and Zhou Gong Dan.

The orientation of Confucius is inescapably conservative and constructs itself in ways incommensurate with the project of modernity: one builds on, models on, learns from the best features of the past, whilst studiously avoiding the mistakes of the past. Elders are respected and revered, rather than condescended to and sidelined as irrelevant or 'behind the times'. Love and justice rather than profit and power are emphasised. Statecraft is not a Weberian matter of filling generic, functionalist job descriptions with interchangeable cogs bearing the proper skillset, but is rather a matter of finding decent human beings (as defined by their relationships) to occupy the positions where their decency will be best displayed. Confucius and Mencius speak harshly against both (what we would now consider) policies of laissez-faire and étatisme - and thus against both schools of thought deriving from Locke and Rousseau.

My two cents, I guess, are that if Confucianism resonates with any school of thinking in modern Western philosophy, I have a strong hunch that it would probably be the radical virtue ethics of Alasdair MacIntyre or, barring that, the critical communitarianism of Michael Sandel (not coincidentally a veritable rock star of popular philosophy in East Asia) or of Charles Taylor.

I am an old man but a beginning student of Chinese history and literature. I see nothing incommensurable about the literature at least; China seems to have produced more good writers in the last fifty years than Europe and America combined.

Of course there a problems with the writings of the premodern period. But the same could be said with the writings of premodern Europe. Ancient Greece is a partial exception: they were the first culture to "sound" modern in their prose; though, seriously, some of those Socratic dialogues are incommensurable by modern standards. As is the Bible of course from beginning to end.

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