Philosophie sans frontières (guest post by Graham Priest)

Philosophie sans frontières (guest post by Graham Priest)


The following guest post* is by Graham Priest (CUNY), and appears here via a special arrangement with Oxford University Press and the OUP Blog, at which it is also posted.


“East is East and West is West, and ne’er the twain shall meet.”

Well, no. Kipling got it wrong.

The East and the West have been meeting for a long time. For most of the last few hundred years, the traffic has been mainly one way. The West has had a major impact on the East. India felt the full force of British imperialism with the British East India Company and the British Raj. Japan fell in love with German culture — especially military culture — after the Meiji restoration. The French colonization of Vietnam drew it inexorably into the Vietnam War.

In the last 40 years, however, a lot of the trade has been going the other way. The post-war developments in Japanese electronics and motorbikes came to dominate the West. Many global IT developments — not to mention call-centers — are now firmly based in India. And it is impossible for Westerners to miss all the garments now bearing the label “Made in China.”

Economy moves at the speed of money. Philosophy moves at the speed of ideas, which is somewhat slower. But the story is similar. In the last 150 years, Western philosophy has made a major impact on the East. The British Raj brought German Idealism — or at least the British take on it — to 19th and early 20th century Indian philosophy. The Japanese Kyoto school absorbed influences from Bergson, James, and — above all — Heidegger. And the influence of Marx on Chinese thinkers hardly needs emphasis.

The influence in the reverse direction is still nascent, but it is now gathering pace. As little as 30 years ago, there was hardly a course on an Eastern philosophical tradition in any Western philosophy department. In fact, it was common to hear Western philosophers claim that the Eastern traditions were merely religion, mysticism, or simply oracular pronouncements. That view was held by philosophers who had never taken the trouble to engage with any of the texts. Had they read them, with care, they would have realized that the philosophy behind them is clear, once one has learned to see beyond the cultural and stylistic differences.

Now, however, many good Western philosophy departments teach at least one course on some Eastern philosophical traditions (at least in the English-speaking world). Good translations of Asian texts are being made by Western philosophers with the appropriate linguistic skills (in the past, translation was firmly in the domain of philologists and scholars of religion). Articles which draw on Eastern ideas are starting to appear in Western philosophy journals. PhD theses are being written comparing Confucius and Aristotle, Buddhist ethics and Stoic ethics, Nyāya and contemporary metaphysical categories. Introductory text books are appearing.

There is still a long way to go until the institution of Western philosophy understands that it is just that — Western philosophy. But at least the movement is under way, though it will certainly take time to overcome the current marginalization of the other half.

What will happen to Western philosophy when full realization sets in? Of course, if we knew what philosophy was going to emerge, it would already have done so. And predictions in this area are worth little. However, I will venture a theory.

We are in the situation that arises when different cultures meet. This has happened before in philosophy. It happened when Greek philosophy met the ideas of the Jewish break-away sect based on the life and death of Yeshua Bar-Yosef. The result was the remarkable development of Christian philosophy. It happened when the ideas of Indian Buddhism came to infuse Chinese thought in the early years of the Common Era. The result was the remarkably distinctive forms of Chinese Buddhisms, such as Chan (Zen). It happened when the new scientific culture which developed in Europe around the Scientific Revolution impacted late Medieval Philosophy, to give us the wealth of Modern Philosophy. I predict that we will witness a similar progressive moment in the present context.

Why do these meetings of culture deliver such progress? It is hard to answer this question without talking about what progress in philosophy amounts to. I can only gesture at an answer here. Progress in philosophy is not like progress in science — whatever that is: as philosophers of science know, this is not an easy question either. One way to see this is to note that philosophers still read Plato, Augustine, Hume. No scientist, qua scientist, reads Newton, Darwin, or even Einstein. Nor is this because the philosophers are simply doing the history of philosophy. They read because the texts contain ideas from which one can still learn.

Cynics might say that what this shows is that there is no progress in philosophy. I demur. Progress in philosophy certainly arises when we become aware of new problems and new arguments. But old problems of importance rarely go away. Yet even here there is still progress in the depth of our understanding. We see new ways to articulate ideas, new aspects of problems, new possible solutions to them.

Now, there are at least two reasons why the impact of a new culture promotes such progress. First, it is a truism that the best way to understand your native tongue is to learn another; and the best way to understand your culture is to become familiar with a radically different one. The contrast throws into prominence things so obvious as to have been invisible. So it is in philosophy. And when these assumptions become visible, they can be scrutinized in the cold hard light of day, to expose any shortcomings.

Secondly, there is genuine innovation in philosophy, but it does not arise ex nihilo. Philosophers draw on their philosophical background for ideas, problems, solutions. The more they have to draw on, the greater the scope for creation and innovation. In the same way, when good Western chefs learn about Eastern cuisine (ingredients, preparations, dishes), they do not simply reproduce them — though of course they can do this, and they do. The most creative draw on the Eastern and Western traditions is to produce entirely new dishes. Call this “fusion cuisine” if you like, but the name is not a great one, since what emerges is not simply merging two cuisines, but creating genuinely novel fare. So it is with philosophy. An understanding of Eastern traditions, when added to an understanding of Western traditions will allow creative philosophers to come up with philosophical ideas, questions, problems, which we cannot, as yet, even imagine.

Over the last couple of decades, it has been my privilege — and that of a small band of other Western-trained philosophers — to help bring the Asian philosophical traditions to the awareness of Western philosophers. For all of us, I think it is true to say, our own philosophical thinking has been enriched by an understanding of Eastern philosophical traditions. If we can enrich the thinking of our Western philosophical colleagues in the same way, our time will have been well spent.

(top image: detail of “Landscape with Scholar’s Rock” by Roy Lichtenstein)

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Adrian Piper [svanistha & bramacharini]
5 years ago

It’s about time. Thank you so much for spelling out the big picture, within which Western philosophy can be appreciated for its particular strengths without being castigated for lacking other strengths that are fully developed and available (to anyone willing to explore them) in Eastern philosophical traditions. My very first history of philosophy course at the City College of New York was taught by Maurice Cohen, who explained his decision to begin the syllabus with the Bhagavad Gita rather than Plato by describing himself, ironically, as a rugged individualist. It’s nice to see another one cropping up in the same university.Report

Andrew Nicholson
5 years ago

I think just quoting the first line of the Kipling poem, as people usually do, misses his point. “East” and “West” may not meet, but people are not tied to any one place, and do encounter one another: “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!”
As for Prof. Priest’s larger argument in this piece, I agree completely!Report

Komal
Komal
5 years ago

I’m very glad to see this post. When I was an undergraduate and all the philosophy I was taught was Western, I wondered if a day would ever come when Western academic philosophy would engage properly with non-Western philosophy. It seems that day is coming fast, which, besides being good for intellectual and other noble reasons, is useful for people like me who also study Indian philosophy.Report

Cathy Legg
Cathy Legg
5 years ago

There’s an idea in the permaculture movement that the borders between different garden areas are the most fruitful places, and which attempts to maximise those meeting grounds with curvy paths and garden edges. This suggests an alternative to the current valuing in Philosophy of monocultures as ‘centres of excellence’, though one still needs to be able to enquire with people who are ‘on the same page’Report

tarmaras
tarmaras
5 years ago

This has struck me the most:

“An understanding of Eastern traditions, when added to an understanding of Western traditions will allow creative philosophers to come up with philosophical ideas, questions, problems, which we cannot, as yet, even imagine.”

Perhaps a sample of this Eastern-inspired creativity in philosophy can be found in the writings of Ashish Dalela. His book Sankhya and Science, Quantum Meaning, Godel’s Mistake and the recent Moral Materialism all reflect two facets of Eastern (Indian) philosophy:

1. a systematic study of the observer and all its faculties (senses, mind, intelligence, ego, morality and consciousness)
2. a semantic theory of nature, different from both platonism and hylomorphism
3. a hierarchical instead of linear view of space-time

Not sure if this is allowed, but a link to a recent blog post from Dalela’s website would perhaps give an idea of the type of intuitions Eastern philosophy can bring to the table of discussion:

http://www.ashishdalela.com/2015/05/17/mind-body-problem-in-indian-philosophy/Report

Anon
Anon
5 years ago

Which philosophical questions or programs stand to benefit from cross-fertilisation? What is it about these questions that make them so? I suspect there are no universal answers. (Some) Philosophers of physics deal with internal questions raised by physics; ‘Eastern-inspired’ creativity (or ‘Western-inspired’ ‘creativity’ for that matter) is quite beside the point. Philosophy san frontieres is a platitude.Report

PeterJ
5 years ago

Anon – I find your comments miss what’s going on here. ALL philosophical questions and programs would benefit from a cross-fertilisation. GP’s article leaves out some important information, which is that all philosophical problems can be solved by reference to ‘eastern’ philosophy.

GP would not concede this since his interpretation of Buddhist philosophy is a paradoxical universe. This is an optional view, however, and a different interpretation gives a generic solution rather than a barrier to knowledge. I wouldn’t see this as cross-fertilization so much as western philosophers getting their act together.

As for the idea that eastern philosophy should deal with philosophy of science, it has bigger fish to fry. Metaphysics is where the real action is, where the important questions are addressed. In eastern philosophy we find a solution for metaphysics. There is no such thing elsewhere, not even a conjecture that would work.

The post was about eastern and western philosophy, not eastern and western ‘creativity’. It’s about doing the sums, not getting stoned.Report

tarmaras
tarmaras
5 years ago

@PeterJ — I think you can find instances of philosophy of science being treated in Eastern philosophy, but they may not be labeled as such. For instance, drawing from the Sankhya school, the author I mentioned above, in his book Moral Materialism defines observers as theories about reality. Each observer is/has a particular theory of reality, a fact which has consequences about the types of experiences that observer will encounter — more specifically, an observer will encounter particularly those experiences that will allow him to correct his theory on reality (worldview), until that theory will be the same as the true theory of reality, that is, reality itself. The thesis of this school of Indian philosophy is that reality is such that if you have a different worldview than what the supreme truth is, you will get encounters with phenomena that will allow you to rectify your theory. In more technical terms this is called the law of karma. Applied to the scientific process, this would mean that if you adopt a materialist theory on reality and reality is not correctly described by that theory, you will soon encounter phenomena that will contradict it and will give you the chance to improve on your theory. A quote:

“Until the world and the worldview are aligned, our knowledge and actions are incompatible with reality. The world and the worldview are, in effect, two different languages or semantic coordinate sys-tems. The interaction between the theory and reality creates experiences, which is the immediate effect of the interaction. Scientific theories—if they are not perfected—model limited parts of nature. The models of nature depicted in such theories partially explain nature when the effects of other parts can be conveniently ignored. However, the neglected parts may not always be ignorable. Sometimes, when these parts cannot be ignored, they create effects that do not fit the predictions of the theory. That is when the theory must be modified. However, for such a modification to occur, the observer must encounter those phenomena that do not fit the theory. If the observer always encounters the same kinds of phenomena that fit the current theory, then the theory can never be improved. How do we know that the observer will indeed encounter the phenomena that violate the theory so the theory can be improved?

For the observer to discover experiences that do not fit the predictions of the present theory there must be another effect of the theory-reality interaction, which we might call its reaction. The reaction in this case is that which causes the observer to move to a part of reality that is incompatible with the theory. The reaction to the theory is now an outcome of the difference between theory and reality and this difference is produced from the truth about the theory: if the theory is true no such reaction would be expected but if the theory is false the experiences that compensate the theory to bring it nearer to reality would be predicted. Such phenomena may modify the theory, and bring it closer to the nature of reality.Report

Alex
5 years ago

Great article! You hear this kind of optimism and excitement coming from the self-help, medical and spiritual communities but rarely from philosophers. I have a feeling that Eastern philosophy puts to rest some of the issues that philosophers enjoy debating more than they enjoy answering (free will, utilitarianism, individual identity, etc.). Dan Dennett’s response to Sam Harris’ essay on Free Will seemed to exemplify this; it looked and felt desperate.Report

PeterJ
5 years ago

Tarmaras – Great comment! One might think also of the Hegelian process of being forced to bounce between extreme false views. You’re right about phil. of science. It may not often be addressed directly, but the whole mystic enterprise is about aligning our beliefs and knowledge with reality so it’s bound to cover the processes of science. Just not often overtly, perhaps, since it would be a minor issue.

The materialism example was a good one but I’m not sure that you’re right to say that science itself will produce evidence against it. The evidence against is philosophical and experiential, not in the form of scientific data. Logical incoherence is not enough for science to drop this theory, and nor are a few million personal testimonies, so maybe science is stuck with it despite the dialectic process you mention.

But yes, of course ‘eastern’ thinking is relevant to phil. of science. My bad.Report

PeterJ
5 years ago

Alex – ” I have a feeling that Eastern philosophy puts to rest some of the issues that philosophers enjoy debating more than they enjoy answering (free will, utilitarianism, individual identity, etc.). ”

This can be demonstrated. This is the significance of GPs prediction for greater cross-fertilisation, that the Eastern kind of philosophy offers solutions so has the power to utterly transform the Western kind.Report

tarmaras
tarmaras
5 years ago

@PeterJ — indeed, science as it is right now will not go beyond current foundations — it is stuck, as you nicely put it. Unless the foundations will shatter all at once when there is a critical mass of incompleteness and inconsistency.

I’d look to Godel’s incompleteness theorem and Turing’s Halting Problem which point towards the dead end — science can’t incorporate the existence of meanings (or information) in its current theories. As Godel and Turing show in mathematics and computings, respectively, whenever you try to do that you get into paradoxes. Again, I’m not saying we can’t deal with meanings — people do that through language everyday — but a physicalist theory is unable to do so. If we compare reality with a book full of information, physicalist theories are only able to describe the width, length, speed, charge, momentum, mass of the book, ink and they can also measure probabilistically the frequency of symbol apparition (quantum physics) — but they just can’t account for the actual meaning of the words.Report

PeterJ
Reply to  tarmaras
5 years ago

@tarmaras – I can never quite pin down what Gödel means for science, although I do know that Hawking once had a paper up called ‘The End of Physics’ which endorsed your view. (Since withdrawn). Heisenberg said it simply when he noted that the description cannot include the describer. The problem can appear as Russell’s Paradox, a problem that is solved in ‘eastern’ philosophy by the unity of the universe and the unreality of all distinctions and divisions.

There are going to be some major changes ahead if GP is correct and the study of this philosophical scheme is becoming both more popular and more professionally acceptable. It may be about to become well-known that the doctrine of the mystics has a rock-solid philosophical foundation. This is not widely grasped even within mysticism, and barely at all beyond.Report

Thom Brooks
Thom Brooks
5 years ago

A further comment on the meeting of East and West is Sen’s The Idea of Justice. I also comment on this in my piece on “global philosophy” out a couple years ago in Metaphilosophy.Report