Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: March, 2016

Upstream from the cogito

It’s Descartes’ birthday. His 420th, to be precise. There is hardly a philosopher who has shaped our thinking and our assumptions more in the Western world than he has. He lived at the outset of the modern scientific era, and in order to make that era possible, he made a radical division between mind and everything else. “Everything else” meant the world “out there”, but also man’s own body. This was the tricky part. Consider the emotions, for example: do they belong to the mind or the body? Clearly both: we may feel anger or fear in our minds, but we also go white with fear or red in the face with anger, and our stomachs are likely to be churning. It is to Descartes’ great credit that he recognized the problem of the emotions, but he dealt with it by calling them “Passions in the Mind”. If they were felt in the mind, he reasoned, then they belonged there and nowhere else.

This iron division between mind and body is something we are still living with. It does not seem to matter that generations of philosophers and scientists have protested that this division does man no good, and in fact that mind and body are more of a continuum than anything else. We still go on thinking of ourselves as knowing subjects, observing with detachment a world “out there” that somehow includes our own bodies.

For Descartes, the cornerstone of everything was the thinking mind. Cogito, ergo sum, he said. If I am a thinking subject, therefore I can be sure of one thing – that I exist. Everything else follows from that. He needed the cogito as a cornerstone for philosophy and science, because he had resolutely gone back to square one in his thinking – he resolved to doubt anything he could not be sure of. He could not doubt his own existence as a thinking subject. So there was a start. That was square one, he thought. But was it?

Contemporary French philosopher and sinologist François Jullien has chosen to go beyond the limits of Western culture and explore Far Eastern philosophy too, so that he can get back to what he calls the impensé, the “unthought”, all the stuff that is never thought about in either culture because it is just assumed. With reference to Descartes and the cogito, he has remarked:

‘Taking a detour through the other [culture] inevitably brings us back upstream from the cogito. When I say “I think”, what is the “we” that thinks through this “I”?  – or, more to the point, does not think: the “we” of language, conceptual categories, ideology, and so on. Every culture now becomes problematic, profoundly foreign, exotically fascinating – ours too.’

As regards the systematic doubt, which Descartes used so he could be sure he was presupposing nothing, Jullien sceptically remarks from his new intercultural perspective:

‘What you doubt… keeps you dependent on it, in the nets of its “unthought”. You can doubt as much as you like, as Descartes heroically does – you are still doubting in your own language and in your own concepts. Doubting still leaves you at home.’

Jullien’s philosophical project is intriguing. He wants to go upstream from Western philosophy with the help of Asian thought, besides going upstream from Asian thought with the help of Western thought. If we could go far enough upstream from both, perhaps we might come to the source where both originate, and which is unknown to them both, as Heidegger and his Japanese philosopher friend were thinking. This is Jullien’s realm of the “unthought”. And this is stuff of which Descartes, four centuries ago, would not even have dreamed.

William Morris and the joy of work

March 24 is William Morris’s birthday. He certainly was an Aries type. Always trying new things. Full of activity. Characteristically, he said once: “If a chap can’t compose an epic poem while he’s weaving tapestry, he had better shut up, he’ll never do any good at all.” Morris the man of every art and craft was also a combative individual, politically involved in Victorian England. And here the bewildering contradictions arise. Like the other Pre-Raphaelites he worked with, he loved the Middle Ages and the whole world of Gothic romance. He loathed the “dark Satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution. Yet he was also a Socialist, fighting to give power to the industrial workers. From today’s point of view, these two things seem incompatible.

Yet labels can be misleading. They can even mislead the people who espouse them. Morris himself was aware of this. He said: “I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes, turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”

When you read Morris’s writings, whether verse or prose, you notice the constant recurrence of the word “clean”. He wants clean air, a clean countryside again. He dreams of the Middle Ages, when the polluted London where he lives had been “small, and white, and clean”.  Today he would have been an environmentalist – but the word did not exist then.

Morris glorified pre-industrial work, and perhaps idealised it, something Marx did not do. For Marx, work belonged to the kingdom of necessity; it was the chore that had to be done before the kingdom of freedom could begin. Morris thought that work should be a source of joy, a joy that is bound to express itself in beauty. Was he wrong? It may sound idealistic, but it came from his own personal approach to work – writing an epic while weaving tapestry. Another time he declared:  “A good way to rid one’s self of a sense of discomfort is to do something. That uneasy, dissatisfied feeling is actual force vibrating out of order; it may be turned to practical account by giving proper expression to its creative character.” As a psychological observation, as a philosophy of work, I think it can hardly be bettered.


Asian values again

In an article in today’s edition of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung German Japan expert Florian Coulmas talks about Asian values. There was, of course, a major discussion on this prior to the turn of the millennium. Yet he observes that Westerners still assume Western values are universal and should be the basis for the world order. In Asia too, people have long accepted it was that way. Japan fit this picture very well; it was eager to appear as a Western nation despite its geography, all the better to differentiate itself from its historic heartland, China. China itself has played the Western game up till now; it has followed the rules of Western business and the international order. Yet both in China and Japan, Coulmas finds, there has been a return to traditional indigenous values in recent years. In China it is the Confucian ethic, obviously, which seems to have become even more important to the Chinese leadership than Communism. But Coulmas sees the same thing happening in Japan. There is the same desire to go back to old values, which is expressed in the conservative movement for constitutional reform, but actually goes far beyond the desire to able to have a powerful army or to boost the political profile of the Emperor.

In spite of these parallel developments, Coulmas says, China and Japan are not likely to pursue a common path – the political and strategic rivalry of near neighbours keeps them apart. That means that the Japanese are not as attentive to Chinese language and culture as they perhaps should be.

Coulmas also concedes that young people both in China and Japan are mainly interested in the West. The question is whether this generation will not just assume that Western values reign supreme, and perpetuate the Western hegemony inside their own heads? Because hegemony is inside people’s heads, a matter of unquestioned assumptions about the world; it is not just a matter of political, military and economic power.

Yet this generation of Asian young people, like every generation, is imbued with the culture they have grown up in, their national culture, and culture has deep roots. Culture is what makes national “destiny”. To be sure, this was a Romantic idea in Europe and in the New World. But behind it is an undeniable reality, namely the bedrock of culture, which gives the nation its continuity, its underlying values, and its history. Deep cultural roots result in repeated scenarios like Japan alternately opening up to the outside world with unbounded curiosity and closing itself off in suspicious isolation – which has been going on for centuries. Countries keep on realizing their destinies in this sense in spite of what the outside world may think or expect. These are things on a time-scale much longer than any generation, and they shape each generation whether it knows it or not.




Imagined landscapes

Last week I wrote about the idea of reinventing the Grisons Alpine region in Switzerland as a “mountain hub”, a “third place” for stressed-out managers and computer whizzes. This might just work! Mind you, it would have nothing to do with what the Alpine landscape of the Grisons means to the natives. It represents a completely different “take” on the landscape. But then again, the Grisons locals should be used to this. For more than a century the Grisons have been associated with tourism. As well as healthy fresh air, this tourism has been associated with mountain-climbing, skiing and other such sporting activities, which the natives would never have thought of doing themselves. This tourism has resulted in a whole literature by famous German writers, who write about a Grisons of their own invention. Think of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain in Davos, Hermann Hesse’s Castalia where future monks play their Glass-Bead Game, and Nietzsche’s remote lofty peaks as a backdrop to the philosophizing of Zarathustra.

This reminds one of conquest too. The conquerors of countries give names to places which are foreign to the natives. They usually know next to nothing about how the natives see their own land. Australia, to an Aboriginal, is criss-crossed by Songlines from the Dreamtime, but to an Aussie, it’s just the Outback, the GAFA, the “Great Australian F—All” . From the medieval poetry of the Dinnseanchas we have some idea of how the Irish once saw Ireland. To the English conquerors it was just a mass of incomprehensible placenames, which they laboriously anglicized, thus stripping them of their meaning, and bequeathed to the English-speaking Irish of today.

One might call this phenomenon “imagined landscapes”, by analogy with the “imagined communities” spoken of by American historian Benedict Anderson. It is the idea of a landscape that is mapped by outsiders in a certain way, but is seen by the native inhabitants in a completely different way. When the outsiders and the natives stand in the same place and look around, they see two different landscapes. In this sense, as is often said, “the map is not the territory”. But, from the time that man is around, there is never just a territory, there are maps – note the plural – and the question is, which one you use. Benedict Anderson himself pointed out that the map creates the territory of the “imagined community” (the nation) to the extent that it defines its borders.