Sunday, April 16, 2006

East and West

[Something else I thought I had lost.]


Joined: 15 Jul 2004
Posts: 6
Location: Quantum space

Posted: Fri Jul 16, 2004 8:59 pm Post subject: Roger Ames on East & West

Below is an excerpt from my master's thesis. --NeoConfucius

The Western Heritage

The single most outstanding feature of Western civilization, then and now, is its dualistic view and the kind of thinking it generates in its conceptions and assumptions about the nature of the world and existence. Roger Ames gives the clearest description of it in his introduction to his translation of Sun-tzu: The Art of Warfare (1993):

A significant concern among the most influential Greek thinkers and later the Christian Church Fathers was to dis­cover and distinguish the world of reality from the world of change, a distinction that fostered both a ‘two-world theory’ and a dualistic way of thinking about it. These thinkers sought that permanent and unchanging first prin­ciple that had overcome initial chaos to give unity, order, and design to a changing world, and which they believed makes experience of this changing world intelligible to the human mind. They sought the ‘real’ structure behind change—called variously Platonic Ideas, natural or Divine Law, moral principle, God, and so on—which, when un­derstood, made life predictable and secure. The centrality of ‘metaphysics’ in classical Greek philosophy, the ‘science’ of these first principles, reflects a presumption that there is some originative and independent source of order that, when discovered and understood, will provide coherent explanation for the human experience.

There were many diverse answers to the basic question: What is the One behind the many? What is the unity that brings everything together as a ‘universe’? What—or Who—has set the agenda that makes human life coherent, and thus meaningful? For the Jewish prophets and scribes, and later for the Christian Church Fathers, it was the existence of the one transcendent Deity who through Divine Will overcame the formless void and created the world, and in whom truth, beauty, and goodness reside. It is this One who is the permanence behind change, and who unifies our world as a single-ordered ‘universe.’ It is this One who allows for objective and universal knowledge, and guarantees the truth of our understanding. Because this One is permanent and unchanging, it is more real than the chaotic world of change and appearances that it disciplines and informs. The highest kind of knowledge, then, is the discovery and contemplation (theoria) of what is in itself perfect, self-evi­dent, and infallible. It is on the basis of this fundamental and pervasive distinction between a permanently real world and a changing world of appearance, then, that our classical tradition can be said to be dominated by a ‘two-world theory.’ …


It is because the first world determines the second that the first world is generally construed as the originative source—a creative, determinative principle, easily translatable into the Judeo-Christian Deity, that brings both natural and moral order out of chaos. Hence, our early tradition tends to be cosmogonic, meaning it assumes some original act of creation and initial beginning, and teleological, meaning it assumes some final purpose or goal, some design to which initial creation aspires. God created the world, and human life is made meaningful by the fact that God’s creation has some design and purpose. It is from this notion of determinative principle that we tend to take explanation of events in the world to be linear and causal, entailing the identification of a premise behind a conclusion, a cause behind an effect, some agency behind an activity [45-48].

The Eastern World

As the oldest living civilization, China, and its influence on the Far East, continues to operate from a wholistic, organic view. Not only does this view permeate their history, it permeates the very nature of their culture, society, and social relations. Jacques Gernet in A History of Chinese Civilization (English trans. 1982) wrote that the unique view of the Chinese philosophers and literati between 500-300 B.C. was derived from the shamanistic divinations of the early Chou dynasty circa 1027 B.C. with antecedents as well as a writing system reaching as far back as 2200 B.C. According to Gernet,

the specialists in divination by yarrow[1] were to define the first elements in a conception of the world as a totality of opposing and complementary forces and virtues, and contribute to the first developments of mathematics (85). …

The manipulation of numbers and the combination of signs suited to translate the correct values of space-time were to serve as the basis of philosophical theories and of the sciences. Less irrational[2] than many others, this mode of apprehending the world was to demonstrate its heuristic worth down the years in many fields (chemistry, magnetism, medicine, and so on). …These theories correlate and reassemble in spatio-temporal groups fundamental properties or forces that are both in opposition and complementary to each other (yin and yang, male and female powers, Five Elements). The growth and decline of these forces, as well as their succession, make it possible to interpret both the natural order and history. They explain the birth, zenith, and decline of political power [98].

This cultural legacy formed the basis of later philosophies, notably, the teachings of Lao-tzu, Confucius, and Mencius, among others. Unlike the dualistic and abstract logic systems of the Greeks, the religious dualism between spirit and matter of the Persians, and the mix of the two in later European philosophers, the Chinese philosophers remained trenchantly pragmatic. According to Gernet this was, in part, based on “a language that could not distinguish between singular and plural, abstract and concrete” [98]. As a result, their pragmatism was quite firmly planted in a concrete “this-world” orientation in which there is no reference to an abstraction that cannot be discerned in the workings of the natural world itself (Ames, 1993).

The workings to be discerned is called Ti’en, Heaven. In Chinese philosophy, Ti'en is not a transcendence that stands prior to or apart from the material world of experience. Rather, Heaven is an indwelling principle within the very structure of the universe itself and is found in the ordered workings and relations of everything in it. “The Classical Chinese believed that the power of creativity resides in the world itself, and that the order and regularity this world evidences is not derived from or imposed upon it by some independent, activating power, but inheres in the world. Change and continuity are equally ‘real’” (Ames, p50).

The tao is the pathway, the “Way” of Heaven, and is the discernable pattern of the ordered workings and relations of everything in the universe. The rising and setting of the sun, the changing of the seasons, weather patterns, the migration of animals, the flow of water, the movement of stars, and birth and death, all indicate the most fundamental rhythm of active and passive, work and rest, young and old, yang and yin, and the forces of male and female, aggression and acquiescence, strength and weakness. The symbol of the circle with a curved line bisecting it into light and dark halves with each appearing to chase each other is the summation of this understanding of the essential rhythm of the universe and all of life. In mathematics it is represented by a circle in the form of a sine wave. Added to this fundamental rhythm are the more complex patterns created by living things according to their nature and governed by their interrelationships like the veins in a leaf, the branches of trees, the course of a river, the habits of insects and animals, and extends to the moral workings of human beings. The way Ames puts it: “within the world is tao—a ‘pathway’ that can, in varying degrees, be traced out to make one’s place and one’s context coherent. Tao is, at any given time, both what the world is, and how it is” [emphasis in original] (50). All things have a pattern of behavior, a pattern of relations. This includes the workings of moral virtue, or its lack, in human society and in government.

Given this view, the workings of society are to follow the tao, the Way of Heaven so that society will accord with the most appropriate pattern for its harmonious functioning—the same as with any healthy ecosystem. Thus for the Chinese, and by extension the Far East, the perspective of social order is intimately bound up with discerning the principles at work in human relations and then culturally embedding the most appropriate modes of behavior so that the pattern thus established will conform to what is most natural to humans. This creates a genuine social harmony rather than a mere balancing of competing interests or a rejection of differences to achieve a banal sameness.

Ames relates the Chinese view that,

The human being is not shaped by some given design that underlies natural and moral order in the cosmos and that stands as the ultimate objective of human growth and experience. Rather, the ‘purpose’ of the human experience, if it can be so described, is more immediate: to coordinate the various ingredients that constitute one’s particular world here and now, and to negotiate the most productive harmony out of them [58].

In this view, there is no ultimate end for humans to achieve at some future, ever-receding point in time. Human perfection is not an objective reality we try, but often fail, to match. In the Chinese and East Asian world, human perfection is the development of wisdom and moral virtue derived from the subjective experience of living.

The Confucian concept of harmony does not mean lack of differences. It means to blend but not homogenize. In Confucianism, “the exemplary person pursues harmony, not sameness” (Ames, p59). An extended passage by Ames will give clarity:

The Confucian distinction between an inclusive harmony and an exclusive sameness has an obvious social and political application. There is a passage in the Discourses of the States (Kuo-yü), a collection of historical narratives probably compiled around the fourth century B.C., which underscores the kind of harmony that maximizes difference:

When harmony is fecund, sameness is barren. Things accommodating each other on equal terms is called blending in harmony, and in so doing they are able to flourish and grow, and other things are drawn to them. But when same is added to same, once it is used up, there is no more. Hence, the Former Kings blended earth with metal, wood, fire, and water to make their products. They thereby harmonized the five flavors to satisfy their palate, strengthened the four limbs to protect the body, attuned the six notes to please the ear, integrated their various senses to nourish their hearts and minds, coordinated the various sectors of the body to complete their persons, established the nine main visceral meridians to situate their pure potency, instituted the ten official ranks to organize and evaluate their bureaucracy … and harmony and pleasure prevailed to make them as one. To be like this is to attain the utmost in harmony. In all of this, the Former Kings took their consorts from other clans, required as tribute those products which distinguished each region, and selected ministers and counselors who would express a variety of opinions on issues, and made every effort to bring things into harmony … There is no music in a single note, no decoration in a single item, no relish in a single taste (60-61).

In Eastern culture, their understanding of life and the universe forms a singular continuity embracing everything from the structure of the cosmos to the changing of the seasons to the workings of human relations. To borrow a passage from the Great Learning, “Things have their root and their branches. Affairs have their end and their beginning. To know what is first and what is last will lead near to what is taught in the Great Learning” (Chen p6). The differences between East and West show how the influence of culture (the root) shapes a society (the branch). According to Richard Nisbett, professor of social psychology at the University of Michigan in a NY Times on the Web article “How Culture Molds Habits of Thought,” he and his colleagues said that they “have found that people who grow up in different cultures do not just think about different things: they think differently” (Goode, 2000). Roger Ames descriptions of the differences between Eastern and Western style thinking not only bears this out but also explains how and why it is different.
Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but rather we have virtue because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.
- Aristotle