Chinese philosophy

Any attempt to survey an intellectual tradition which encompasses more than four thousand years would be a daunting task even if it could be presumed that the reader shares, at least tacitly, many of the assumptions underlying that tradition. However, no such commonalities can be assumed in attempting to introduce Asian thinking to Western readers. Until the first Jesuit incursions in the late sixteenth century, China had developed in virtual independence of the Indo-European cultural experience and China and the Western world remained in almost complete ignorance of one another.

The dramatic contrast between Chinese and Western modes of philosophic thinking may be illustrated by the fact that the tendency of European philosophers to seek out the being of things, the essential reality lying behind appearances, would meet with little sympathy among Chinese thinkers, whose principal interests lie in the establishment and cultivation of harmonious relationships within their social ambiance. Contrasted with Anglo-European philosophic traditions, the thinking of the Chinese is far more concrete, this-worldly and, above all, practical.

One reason for this difference is suggested by the fact that cosmogonic and cosmological myths played such a minor role in the development of Chinese intellectual culture and that, as a consequence, Chinese eyes were focused not upon issues of cosmic order but upon more mundane questions of how to achieve communal harmony within a relatively small social nexus. The rather profound linguistic and ethnic localism of what Pliny the Elder described as a ‘stay-at-home’ China, reinforced by a relative freedom from intercultural contact, generated traditional radial communities in which moral, aesthetic and spiritual values could remain relatively implicit and unarticulated. By contrast, in the West these norms had to be abstracted and raised to the level of consciousness to adjudicate conflicts occasioned by the complex ethnic and linguistic interactions associated with the development of a civilization rooted almost from the beginning in the confluence of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin civilizations.

The distinctive origins and histories of Chinese and Western civilizations are manifested in a number of important ways. The priority of logical reasoning in the West is paralleled in China by the prominence of less formal uses of analogical, parabolic and literary discourse. The Chinese are largely indifferent to abstract analyses that seek to maintain an objective perspective, and are decidedly anthropocentric in their motivations for the acquisition, organization and transmission of knowledge. The disinterest in dispassionate speculations upon the nature of things, and a passionate commitment to the goal of social harmony was dominant throughout most of Chinese history. Indeed, the interest in logical speculations on the part of groups such as the sophists and the later Mohists was short-lived in classical China.

The concrete, practical orientation of the Chinese toward the aim of communal harmony conditioned their approach toward philosophical differences. Ideological conflicts were seen, not only by the politicians but by the intellectuals themselves, to threaten societal well-being. Harmonious interaction was finally more important to these thinkers than abstract issues of who had arrived at the ‘truth’. Perhaps the most obvious illustration of the way the Chinese handled their theoretical conflicts is to be found in mutual accommodation of the three emergent traditions of Chinese culture, Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. Beginning in the Han dynasty (206 BCAD 220), the diverse themes inherited from the competing ‘hundred schools’ of pre-imperial China were harmonized within Confucianism as it ascended to become the state ideology. From the Han synthesis until approximately the tenth century AD, strong Buddhist and religious Daoist influences continued to compete with persistent Confucian themes, while from the eleventh century to the modern period, Neoconfucianism – a Chinese neoclassicism – absorbed into itself these existing tensions and those that would emerge as China, like it or not, confronted Western civilization.

In the development of modern China, when Western influence at last seemed a permanent part of Chinese culture, the values of traditional China have remained dominant. For a brief period, intellectual activity surrounding the May Fourth movement in 1919 seemed to be leading the Chinese into directions of Western philosophic interest. Visits by Bertrand Russell and John Dewey, coupled with a large number of Chinese students seeking education in Europe, Great Britain and the USA, promised a new epoch in China’s relations with the rest of the world. However, the Marxism that Mao Zedong sponsored in China was ‘a Western heresy with which to confront the West’. Mao’s Marxism quickly took on a typically ‘Chinese’ flavour, and China’s isolation from Western intellectual currents continued essentially unabated.


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