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The Meaning of Life

The Meaning of Life (II)

Roger Ames on a Chinese approach.

“Hey Mum, I became Chinese.”

The not infrequent and certainly highest compliment a Chinese colleague can pay an intimate Western associate is “Ni jiu shi yige Zhongguoren.” – “You are just like Chinese.” I think, in my case anyway, they may be right, at least in terms of my philosophical sensibilities.

In a recent issue of Philosophy Now, the editor Anja Steinbauer cited the great German philosopher, G.W. Leibniz as having said, “I am inclined to believe that the [Chinese] writers, especially the ancient ones, make much sense.” Indeed, Leibniz had a very high opinion of Chinese culture, particularly in those areas of the human experience that I personally believe matter most. In his preface to Novissima Sinica, Leibniz allows that the European cultures are not only superior to China in “logic and metaphysics, and in the knowledge of things incorporeal,” but further that they also “yield to us in military science.” On the other hand:

certainly they surpass us (though it is almost shameful to confess this) in practical philosophy, that is, in the precepts of ethics and politics adapted to the present life and use of mortals. Indeed, it is difficult to describe how beautifully all the laws of the Chinese, in contrast to those of other peoples, are directed to the achievement of public tranquility and the establishment of social order, so that men shall be disrupted in their relations as little as possible. (D. Cook and H. Rosemont trans.)

It was because Leibniz, unlike the more typically sinophobic Kant, Hegel, Mill, and Emerson (who in his most flattering moments, referred to China as “hoary Idiot,” and “reverend Dullness”), knew China well, that the seemingly invincible ignorance of many of our finest Western thinkers gave way, at least for one brief moment, to understanding. I say “seemingly invincible ignorance” because it is unfortunately the influence of Hegel, rather than Leibniz, that continues at present to locate this very civilized Chinese culture in a most marginal corner within the Western academy. It is thus that I, speaking on “the meaning of life,” am not at all representative of my liberal Western culture.

In reflecting on what I take to be the meaning of my life, I arrive at a rather hybrid Confucian-Daoist position. I begin from Leibniz’s insight that fostering productive relations is perhaps the central value in Chinese culture. For Confucius, being human is irreducibly social. Each of us is a “field of selves,” constituted interdependently by those roles and relationships that locate us uniquely within a social, natural, and cultural context. To the extent that we are successful in nurturing our patterns of roles and relations into a flourishing community, each of us emerges as a person who is authoritatively human – that is, as a person who is deferred to by others as one who is able to craft the inherited authority of a shared tradition into a way of thinking and living that makes the most out of the always unique present circumstances.

Western philosophy’s tendency to treat human nature as a fixed object and assume it to be ready-made is challenged by this view of human nature as a process, an aggregate of human experience. The basis of community is not a ready-made mind, metaphysically identical with other minds. Rather it is a ‘functional’ or ‘instrumental’ inchoate heart-mind (xin) expressed in the language of relationships that, through communication, produce the aims, beliefs, aspirations, and knowledge necessary to establish the like-mindedness of effective community. Human realization is achieved not by whole-hearted participation in communal life forms, but by life in community that forms one whole-heartedly.

This classical Confucianism is at once a-theistic, and profoundly religious. It is a religion without a God; a religion that affirms the cumulative human experience itself. Confucianism celebrates the way in which the process of human growth is shaped by, and contributes to, the meaning of the totality. This creative process is, to use John Dewey’s expression, “doing and undergoing” in an effort to get the most out of one’s experiences.

Unlike the Abrahamic religions that ‘worship’, deferring to the ultimate meaning of some pre-existing, independent, external agency – what Schleiermacher has called ‘absolute dependence’ – Confucian religious experience is itself a product of the flourishing community, where the quality of the religious life is a direct consequence of the quality of communal living. Religion is not the root of the flourishing community, not the foundation on which it is built, but rather is its product, its flower. For the Confucian, human culture transforms bird tracks and the markings on the backs of turtles into calligraphy and the Book of Songs, random copulation into love and family, feeding into fine dining and tea ceremony, raw, primitive feelings into inspiration and aesthetic enjoyment, and inchoate interpersonal relations into a flourishing community and the profound religious sensibilities that such communion fosters.

On this definition of person, community, and religiousness, I guess I am a ‘Honolulu’ Confucian.

But I have grown my garden in Hawai’i for some time now, and I have a refined taste for, if not a positive addiction to, the natural beauty of my place. Here, my more Daoistic sensibilities kick in. After all, the Daoist response to the Confucian is: You’ve got it half right – the meaning of life lies in productive relationships. But interpersonal relations, while intense in their complexities, are not everything. Kiss a dog; hug a tree. (Or better, end animal abuse and save the rainforests). Daoism brings to classical Confucianism a profound ecological demand.

These Daoistic sensibilities can be expressed best perhaps in what my frequent collaborator David Hall has called “the wu-forms:” wuwei (“non-coercive activity”), wuzhi (“unprincipled knowing”), and wuyu (“objectless desire”). Simply put, to the extent that coercion is an element in a relationship, the creative possibilities are accordingly diminished. Getting the most out of one’s surroundings requires full participation without overwriting the uniqueness of those things which constitute one’s context. “Unprincipled knowing” means that in seeking to understand the world around one, one must approach each experience without prejudice or uncritical assumption. It entails an awareness of the bottomless complexity of particularity, and requires an uncompromising effort to take things on their own terms. And “objectless desire” means cherishing the dynamic relationships that bind one into one’s world while relinquishing any need for exclusivity or possession.

Daoism’s emphasis on processes and on perspectives precludes the possibility of any final vocabulary. We are philosophical ironists who, in the absence of any exclusive, sober ‘truth’ as our erstwhile destination, are out to make the most of things and to enjoy the ride.

Of course, in living a responsible life, one requires both social and ecological responsiveness. So I, like most of my fellow Chinese, am at once a Confucian and a Daoist.

Now, my old Mum is very old-world, and would be appalled at the betrayal entailed by any suggestion that I define the meaning of my life by appeal to a culture not my own. But my response would be that philosophy is a personal narrative, and in this narrative, one never abandons one’s own place. So my Chinese sensibilities are also very Western. In fact, it will be indeed a better world when we realise that in the flux and flow of life, there is only one seamless culture, and only one extraordinarily rich language that gives it expression. Learning that language and aspiring to be truly at home in that culture – this then, is the meaning of my life.

© Professor Roger T. Ames 1999

Roger Ames is professor of philosophy at the University of Hawai’i and Editor of Philosophy East and West and is a leading American interpreter of Eastern thought.

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