Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: October, 2016

The other side of listening

I have long admired Gemma Corradi Fiumara’s book on listening published thirty years ago. It was called Filosofia dell’ascolto, and it appeared in an English translation called The other side of language: a philosophy of listening. She was talking about listening as a neglected aspect of our philosophical tradition in the West. Socrates asked questions and thought of himself as a midwife for other people’s ideas, but from then on, philosophy focussed on argument and defeating the other fellow’s point of view. Throughout its history, philosophy has been combative in this way, a verbal war of all against all, a war of ideas and arguments. The same has happened in the sciences. In modern times, the social sciences talk endlessly about people as groups and individuals, without listening to what they might have to say for themselves.

Corradi Fiumara is persuasive as she describes the refusal to listen, the tactics to shut opponents up, and the tendency to turn people and groups into objects of study. She says that it is time to reclaim the activity of listening for philosophy and social science. If philosophy is a logos, a saying, a talk, could not this logos, which originally seems to mean something like “gathering in”,  include listening?

Thirty years later, I am beginning to see another point to the book, another application of it, which Corradi Fiumara did not think of at the time she wrote it. In the intervening years, there has been an unforeseen development: the political and economic focus of the world has begun shifting from West to East, and the East could soon become the centre of things on a world scale, supplanting the West. It is time, therefore, for the West to become receptive to the East, and if necessary, develop new disciplines to do just that. It is time for the West to listen to the East.

The trouble is that to listen you have to stop talking, which is a very difficult thing for us in the West to do. We are used to arguing with each other. Meanwhile the world of the book is giving way to that of audio-visual media, and more than ever our lives are filled with chatter, most of which we try to ignore, if we are not actively trying to get a hearing ourselves.

Yet it seems to me that receptiveness to Asia will be the major task of Western discourse at some time in the not-too-distant future. Did I say Western discourse? What may ultimately be called for is Western silence.

Listening is good, and we do precious little of it, that is, real listening. We can listen, though; and it is not all that hard to do amongst ourselves, when we are so used to hearing each other’s voices. But that is only half the story. Listening to Asia, the non-Western, the unfamiliar, the unknown, is going to be the other side of listening.



Bashing Confucius

Writing in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung last week, journalist Claudia Wirz, who has been following the setting up of Confucius institutes in Switzerland for several years, reviews the whole process and come to a disappointingly negative conclusion.

She sees the institutes as an exercise in what Americans call “soft power”. In her view, however, the Chinese can try to build up soft power all they like, but they don’t succeed for two reasons:

  1. Chinese is a very difficult language, and its history and literature are an unknown quantity in the rest of the world;
  2. The Chinese look bad in the Western world because of their lack of democracy.

As for point one, this is true, but the Chinese can do a lot by making the major names better known through popular educational books in foreign languages. We must admit that in the Western world itself, names and references that every educated individual supposedly knows are fast disappearing from general knowledge. Yes, the Chinese language is difficult for Westerners, because they do not have an ear for tones, and the writing system requires a lot of effort. Pinyin is more a hindrance than a help, because of its lack of relation to existing phonetic transcription conventions in the West. We in the West have never tried to cultivate an “exotic” language before – but at least we have lots of experience learning each other’s languages, and our “classics”. We should apply that experience to the new task, and maybe we might come up with something ourselves that the Chinese would be glad to use.

As for point 2, the lack of democracy is no bar to commercial relations when it comes to “cracking the Chinese market” and making money, so why should it be to culture either? Westerners studying Chinese language and culture are not compelled to admire Xi Jinping & Co; they can find plenty to admire in the traditions of calligraphy and visual art, philosophy, spirituality and so on to fuel their interest in China and things Chinese. No, I think disliking Communism is more a ready excuse for not making the effort than anything else.

Unlike the NZZ author, I find the Chinese effort at creating soft power to be a fascinating experiment, and we should be looking at it positively, and even contribute to it, instead of condemning it.




Religious hankerings

This week I stood in Cologne cathedral, that huge, soaring Gothic monument of Christendom, and of Catholicism in particular. It is now mainly a tourist attraction.

I thought of the gorgeous profusion of religious art before me, and then of the contrast with the Protestant churches in Switzerland, where the tradition is severe and sober, and there is not so much as a picture. In many old medieval churches there that were taken over at the Reformation, like Neuchâtel cathedral, one is struck by the empty space where the altar has been torn out, murals whitewashed over, and nothing left of the old dispensation. There is an empty space, and nothing to put in it.

And yet, no matter what sort of religious tradition you come from, the empty space where an ornate altar once stood is somehow easier to relate to. We moderns tend to want to leave empty space for God instead of filling it up with symbols of Him. Modern Catholic churches tend to look like that too.

Protestantism, especially the Calvinistic type, as Max Weber saw, is the most modern version of Christianity, having abandoned all the frills and archaisms of the Old Faith. Catholic religiosity is a lot more old-fashioned, and Orthodox Christianity is the most archaic of all, with its unbroken tradition from the Ancient Near East.

What is older than ourselves often seems more authentic. For what is religion and spirituality except an urge to get back to the origins, to the groundless ground of existence?

Devout Protestants sometimes have a hankering back to the lost authenticity of Catholicism; sometimes this makes them go over to Rome, and sometimes it results in a movement within a Protestant church like Anglo-Catholicism in the Church of England.

Similarly, devout Catholics sometimes have a hankering back to the lost authenticity of Orthodoxy, which reminds them of their own earlier liturgy, and find themselves drawn to the Uniate Eastern-rite churches.

This nostalgia for what went before in religious history seems to be found in all branches of Christianity. And how could it be otherwise, when Christianity is based on the Faith of Israel, which it uneasily supplanted? As a Westerner, when I attend an Orthodox liturgy, the bearded priests with their hats, the plaintive chanting, and the seven-branched candlestick lit on the altar take me back to where we all began: the Temple of Jerusalem.



Whose China?

François Jullien is a well-known Sinologist in France. Actually, he says he is not really a Sinologist but a philosopher interested in Chinese thought. At any rate, he has a great influence on the French perception of China. He is regularly consulted by media and business.

Jean-François Billeter is another Sinologist. He has criticized Jullien in a pamphlet, Contre François Jullien. He says Jullien has constructed a vision of China which is just a projection of his own thinking. Jullien characterizes Chinese thinking in terms of “immanence” rather than “transcendence”. This means that the world is seen as a self-perpetuating entity, a process with which we can be in harmony or not. What is important is not ultimate purposes or universal laws, but managing the flow of things, making things work.

Billeter says Jullien feels close to the business world – the world of internationally operating CEOs – because that is how business thinks: don’t ask why things are the way they are, much less try to change them; just adapt to the market and profit from whatever happens there.

According to Billeter, the “immanent” way of thinking, which he admits has been the prevalent one in Chinese history, is a creation of the old imperial system. If the Emperor ruled from Peking and could not be questioned, the only thing that remained to be done was to make the system work, which the mandarins did.

What is more, says Billeter, France is like that (he is Swiss). France is a place run from Paris by an élite. French intellectuals see themselves as a kind of Republican mandarinate. This way of thinking derives from the Enlightenment, and he points out that Enlightenment thinkers admired China as a rational state. Ironically, he says, whatever they knew about China they got from their arch-enemies the Jesuits. The Jesuits, who were an intellectual élite themselves, wanted to justify their top-down approach to China – converting the élites – by showing how excellent the mandarin system was.

Now, the Sinologists can argue this one out themselves. But I think Billeter is on to an interesting idea: what you see in other countries is a projection of what you are yourself, and what preoccupies you. There is no universal account of China. There is a French account of China; maybe a Swiss account of China; and that’s just the beginning of it…