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The Impossible Issue

by Anja Steinbauer

“The winds rise in the north,
Blow west, blow east,
And now again whirl high above
Who breathes them out, who breathes them in?”

The classical Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi has once again hit the nail on the head: ideas arise and make their rounds, they are articulated, accepted or rejected by a variety of thinkers. His poem above is a small part of a long argument about putting philosophical ideas into perspective. Ultimately, Zhuangzi recommends rising above them altogether by trusting your own instincts.

‘Western’ philosophers may be forgiven for not agreeing or disagreeing with Zhuangzi. His style and conceptual framework are unfamiliar. After all, what exactly is he even saying? And even if we can figure it out, is this philosophy? I have come across this kind of scepticism millions of times. It ranges from a totally justified, healthy critical doubt to irrational, almost hostile rejection. For example, I once met a philosophy graduate educated in the Western analytical tradition who told me that non-Western philosophy was always “ugh!” Whatever this meant, it clearly wasn’t an expression of appreciation. Said philosopher eventually went on to write a popular book about world philosophies, so I guess he must have either changed his mind or recognised that currently there may be commercial potential in this pursuit.

Since my own background is in Chinese philosophy – my PhD was on the philosophical system of a 20th Century Confucian philosopher called Tang Junyi – I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about how to communicate between different traditions of thought and how to encourage their representatives to communicate with each other. I’ve tried hermeneutics and comparative philosophy and my conclusion is that it is a pretty impossible task. I was never satisfied with the results. Tang Junyi himself cut to the core of what is wrong with comparative philosophy by pointing out that we will find whatever we’re looking for: if we look for differences we will find differences, if we look for similarities, then that’s what we will come up with. Frustrating but true.

Another problem is that our understanding of ‘philosophy’ carries with it a host of expectations that are, like the term itself, defined by the Western tradition. Philosophical activity that does not come from that background is therefore naturally put at a disadvantage when judged by these standards. This does not mean it lacks philosophical substance; it just means that it is sometimes more difficult to sift out the philosophical contents. Great scholars of Buddhist thought such as Alexander Piatigorsky or Edward Conze, for instance, talk about it on its own terms without trying to squeeze it into the starlight jacket of Western philosophical structures. Some experts, such as Trevor Leggett, go even further by accepting that theory is accompanied by certain practices such as meditation, which will allow for a more complete insight. All this may make it seem that studying non-Western thought is more trouble than it’s worth.

Yet it has to be done. “We must learn to talk with each other, and we mutually must understand and accept one another in our extraordinary differences,” wrote Existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers, a thinker with an appreciation for the importance of global philosophies. He has taken a lot of criticism, including from me, for his idea of the Axial Age, a period of intense philosophical activity in many separate parts of the world from about the 8th to the 3rd century BCE which Jaspers believed to be “the foundations upon which humanity still subsists today.” Though I used to think of his emphasis on this historical accident as frivolous and perhaps even distorting, on reflection his idea may be a legitimate starting point for developing an interest in cross-cultural thinking.

Eastern philosophy is tremendously diverse so as we can’t be comprehensive we haven’t tried to be. The articles in our West Meets East section mainly involve Buddhist and Hindu ideas, and don’t on the whole try to force comparisons with Western thinkers. Three focus on tricky problems: (the nature of substance; the difference between truth and the true; our ethical relationship with nature) and tackle them with insights from both West and East. Karen Parham looks at Descartes famous Meditations with Buddhism in mind. Two articles explain core concepts in Eastern thought (impermanence; karma). One introduces the life and ideas of a Samurai philosopher. We also have a brief interview with Joerg Tuske about Western academic perspectives on Eastern philosophy.

Engaging with radically different approaches to philosophy, despite all linguistic, conceptual and structural difficulties, can be extremely rewarding. Even ‘edifying’, as Richard Rorty suggested: “The attempt to edify (ourselves and others) may consist in the hermeneutical activity of making connections between our own culture and some exotic culture, or between our own discipline and another discipline which seems to pursue incommensurable aims in an incommensurable vocabulary. But it may consist in the ‘poetic’ activity of thinking up new aims, new words, or new disciplines, followed by, so to speak, the inverse of hermeneutics: the attempt to reinterpret our familiar surroundings in the unfamiliar terms of our new inventions.” And this may be the most important result to which we can look forward: that the activity itself changes us and challenges our conventional ways of thinking.

So enjoy our ‘impossible’ issue. May it inspire new interests and ideas, and spark controversy as well as understanding. We haven’t let its impossibility stop us and, I hope, neither will you.

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