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Western Philosophy on the Defensive

Thomas Metzger suggests that contemporary Chinese philosophy, despite its weaknesses, challenges the foundations of modern, Western analytical philosophy.

Looking at some historical and methodological issues regarding the extent to which modern Chinese and Western philosophy can or should form a kind of international seminar discussing a shared agenda, I am writing as a student of Chinese intellectual history rather than a professionally trained philosopher. Such an international seminar has obviously already been formed, as illustrated by the ongoing discussion about the grammatical, semantic, and ontological aspects of the Chinese language, but I believe that one way to develop this seminar is to bring up some so far neglected epistemological issues.

My argument is based on a number of my writings, including two unpublished ones, ‘T’ang Chün-i’s Rejection of Western Modernity’ and ‘Discourse #1 and Discourse #2: The Search for Political Rationality in China and the West Today and the Concept of Discourse.’ My starting point is a series of seemingly uncontroversial empirical or historical observations, combined with a bit of interpretation.

First, during the last four centuries, the advent of capitalism, modern science, industrialization, modernization, and democratization in the West has been accompanied by an epistemological revolution, the Great Modern Western Epistemological Revolution (GMWER), which did not occur in China during the last century when modernization and some democratization occurred there as well. GMWER basically refers to the rising skepticism Alasdair MacIntyre described in After Virtue, the increasing doubt that reason can reveal the objective basis of moral norms, but I use ‘revolution’ to avoid the common philosophical evaluation of this change as an increasing ‘crisis’. My point is that the conceptualization of knowledge greatly changed, whether this change was good or bad (though this change did not occur throughout all of the Western intellectual world).

This change can be described by using the terms ‘epistemological optimism’ and ‘epistemological pessimism’. Again, Karl Popper used these terms in a philosophically evaluative way to denote two wrong ways of thinking, in contrast with the correct way, ‘critical rationalism’. I use them just descriptively to denote two outlooks that seemingly are integral to any conceptualization of knowledge: the optimistic sense of the obvious and indisputable (I know racism is bad, I know I am mortal), and the pessimistic belief that any idea (except this one) must be cautiously and rigorously questioned before it can be given the status of knowledge (Popper denied that ‘all men are mortal’ can be accepted as a ‘justified true belief’).

If we use Popper’s ‘three worlds’ as an example, epistemological optimism believes there is knowledge available about all three worlds: world one, the ontological world, which Popper posited was a ‘physical’ one; world two, the world of norms, which Popper basically regarded as made up only of ‘beliefs’; and world three, the world of so far unfalsified ‘conjectures’, the only one Popper dignified with the term ‘objective knowledge’. Epistemological pessimism, as just indicated, believes no knowledge is available about the ontological and the normative realms and sometimes even questions whether ideas tested in the Popperian way by means of experiments can count as objective knowledge.

The contrast between epistemological optimism and pessimism can be made still clearer by distinguishing between six kinds of topics which could serve as objects of knowledge. The first is Popper’s world three, the realm of observable events susceptible to experimentation and the application of logic. The second consists of the introspectively observable contours of consciousness discussed by thinkers like Hume, Kant, and Husserl. The third consists of certain human characteristics which can with little risk of controversy be regarded as integral to universal human nature, such as the desire for physical health and material well-being; perhaps certain tendencies listed by psychologists like Freud or Abraham Maslow; perhaps a certain desire for freedom; or perhaps even the ability to reason and become educated in the sense of something that exists, is inherently good, and inherently implies a moral obligation to cultivate it. The fourth is the realm of more substantive and specific moral or normative questions, such as the choice between selfishness and the golden rule and specific policy choices – should China promptly democratize? should the U.S. pay reparations to the descendants of people who were slaves owned under U.S. law? The fifth is the realm of meaningful relations between all true propositions. Does knowledge include ideas demonstrating the logical unity of all true propositions, ideas forming a t’i-hsi (systematic, unified theory explaining the nature of all aspects of human life and its setting)? The sixth topic is that of the oneness of all aspects of existence, a notion described as ‘linkage’ in my Escape from Predicament and summed up in Neo-Confucianism as t’ien-jen ho-i (the oneness of Heaven and man). The focus here is ontological knowledge.

Maximum epistemological optimism – illustrated by the thought of many modern Chinese thinkers , such as T’ang Chün-i – holds that objective knowledge is available regarding all six topics. Maximum epistemological pessimism holds that for all six there is only subjective, arbitrary opinion (if that position is logically possible).

The GMWER, epitomized by the thought of Descartes, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, and Max Weber, arose out of causes that have been variously discussed, such as British nominalism and its religious background, the obsession with precise thinking discussed by Eric Voegelin, and a largely German talent for using ideas like history, culture, and discourse to explore the ways in which ideas subjectively shared by a we-group can constitute what they mistakenly regard as objective reality. The GMWER mostly avoided maximum epistemological pessimism and came to focus on demonstrations that knowledge about topics four, five, and six is unavailable. In twentieth-century Chinese intellectual circles, however, these demonstrations were seldom if ever accepted. For some time now, Chinese referring to some or all of them have spoken of pu-k’o-chih-lun (the theory that much of reality is unknowable) as a Western fallacy that Chinese thinkers must be wary of. There have been many different Chinese ways of responding to or ignoring the GMWER. Very important have been the outlooks ignoring or unaware of it, such as those of Yen Fu and Liang Ch’i-ch’ao, who set the direction of so much modern Chinese thought. The inherited epistemological optimism of such thinkers was so strong that they just brushed aside the ideas constituting the GMWER insofar as they even noticed them (Peking University’s Li Qiang has noted, however, that Yen Fu had a copy of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and Tsing-hua University’s Wang Hsien-ming told me that Yen did write something about the questions it raised). This kind of obliviousness has been central to much Chinese Marxism, Sunism, liberalism, scientism, and even humanism (for example the humanism of Ch’ien Mu and Yü Ying-shih). By contrast, Wang Kuo-wei in the early nineteenth century was aware of the ideas constituting the GMWER and despairingly accepted them: “What is lovable is not true, what is true is not lovable.” Much more common have been vigorous Chinese philosophical efforts made to refute these GMWER ideas, such as those of Chin Yueh-lin (1895-1984), whose critique of logical positivism has been analyzed by East China Normal University’s Yang Kuojung; of New Confucian philosophers like Mou Tsung-san and T’ang Chün-i; of the Hong Kong economist Henry K.H. Woo, who was influenced by Confucian humanism; of Li Tse-hou in the 1970s, when he critiqued Kant’s thought from a Marxist standpoint; and of another currently important Marxist thinker, East China Normal University’s Feng Ch’i (1915-1995), who sought to unify discursive understanding and the grasp of ineffable truths. In the 1990s, a considerable amount of Mainland writing made much use of the idea of ‘paradox’ to accept the conclusions of the GMWER partly or wholly while demonstrating that these conclusions actually implied ways of negating them and of establishing a ‘new wisdom’ with which to rebuild China (for example a recent essay by Chao T’ing-yang, a philosopher attached to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing). Another common Chinese tactic has been to view current Western trends criticizing the GMWER as a rising tide corroborating Chinese wisdom. Thus Li Jui-ch’uan’s book on Hume celebrated his concept of ‘moral sentiment’ while dismissing his ‘empiricism’ as a ‘dead end’.

When one puts together these varied ways of refuting the GMWER with the major Chinese tendencies to ignore the GMWER as unworthy of serious discussion, one can identify a major if not complete consensus in the modern Chinese intellectual world cutting across ideological lines and rejecting the conclusions of the GMWER, reaffirming the epistemological optimism indeed inherited from the Confucian and the Neo- Confucian tradition, and so diverging from the world of modern Western analytical philosophy. It is no exaggeration to say that the agendas of these two philosophical worlds largely diverge (koko pu-ju). Western philosophers ask how philosophy can be pursued in light of the GMWER’s demonstrations that knowledge about topics four, five, and six above is unavailable (one answer being the analysis of historical languages), while the philosophical problem in much of the modern Chinese philosophical world is that of how to refute the GMWER by obtaining knowledge about these topics – how, as Feng Ch’i put it, to obtain ‘wisdom’, not only ‘knowledge’.

These hopefully plausible descriptive remarks about two philosophical worlds indicate that, at least in the case of epistemology, traffic between them has been one-way, with Chinese philosophers often addressing Western theories, while Western philosophers treat Chinese epistemological optimism much as Liang Ch’i-ch’ao treated Western epistemological pessimism – by ignoring it.

Should, however, Western philosophers disregard this Chinese optimism? Even more, in the epistemological disagreements between these two worlds, are there important issues which both have so far failed to ponder? My own opinion is that the best way to look for these issues is to reopen the question of what is knowledge. It can be reopened, first of all, by using the ideas of epistemological optimism and epistemological pessimism in the purely neutral, descriptive way outlined above and asking: what is the most reasonable or desirable way to mix these two outlooks?

Second, instead of trying to answer this question in an abstract way, one can try to assess the different historical answers to it. This means first describing these answers while postponing evaluation of them, much as a jury tries to listen in an unbiased way to different witnesses before evaluating their testimonies.

Third, I suggest that, as one describes historical ideas, the attempt accurately to grasp the meaning and the context of an idea unavoidably leads to the currently fashionable concept of ‘discourse’, which, as Richard J. Bernstein helped to show, stems from the work of a variety of scholars, such as Husserl, Weber, Wittgenstein, Isaiah Berlin, Kenneth Burke, Quentin Skinner, and Michel Foucault. What ‘discourse’ suggests to me is (a) that the concept of knowledge used by a writer to address issues consists not only of any explicitly epistemological theory he or she may propound but also many assumptions, often platitudinous from the emic standpoint, scattered in his or her writings and widely shared with contemporaries; (b) that this concept of knowledge does not necessarily stand alone and rather is interwoven with ideas about the goal of life, the means to reach it, and other ideas defining the given world, including all the undesirable aspects of life, their causes, and, more generally, the nature of human nature, of history and of the cosmos; that (c) all or many of the platitudes pertaining in a discourse to the concept of knowledge, goals, means, and the rest of the given world appear as indisputable principles or truths to the we-group conducting the discourse (such as ‘our’ ‘racism is bad’); and (d) that this concept of discourse, itself a product of the GMWER, implies the successful acquisition of full, absolute knowledge about the universal nature of all human knowing as a paradoxical mix of historical, cultural, and other influences shaping the subjectivity of an individual or group together with the reflexive and perceptual ability to obtain knowledge about objective reality.

If the idea of ‘discourse’ can be thus understood, much can be said about not only the description but also the evaluation of the Chinese and the Western epistemological worlds. First, the problem of evaluation can be reconsidered. Richard J. Bernstein explained how a hermeneutic approach could define a ‘middle ground’ between objectivism and relativism, but this middle ground may simply and clearly consist of the ‘indisputables’ that are integral to any discourse. Second, according to the ‘indisputables’ of my we-group (the platitudes which we, like Isaiah Berlin , accept as undeniable even if we cannot prove them to rest on eternal truths) the GMWER may have definitively demonstrated lack of knowledge about topics five and six , but it did not necessarily preclude all knowledge about topic four. It merely produced an attractive allegation that such knowledge is probably unavailable, making it fashionable for many Western scholars today apologetically to refer to all their premises and convictions, however adamantly defended, as mere “prejudices.” Conversely, Chinese thinkers like T’ang Chün-i in effect rejected this allegation and cogently focused on the question of the limits of human fallibility.

True, as already indicated, the epistemological optimism of these Chinese thinkers vastly overshot the mark, since they insisted the human mind can obtain knowledge about all six of the above topics, including metaphysical understanding of the ontological basis of experience and the cosmos. So far as I can see, however, their epistemological optimism is challenging if one interprets it as referring to not only dubious metaphysical matters but also the problem of knowledge.

One can argue about what can be known and what the nature of knowledge is, but, it seems clear, one cannot logically argue that the universal, absolute, full nature of knowledge cannot be known. After all, that it can be known is a claim made by the very heroes of the GMWER, such as Hume, Kant, and Popper, not to mention epistemologically optimistic Chinese. Its knowability in turn has vast implications, especially if recognition of its knowability is combined with an idea hardly anyone disputes, that knowledge is good and should be pursued by people.

It follows that human thought has access to not just ideas produced by limited historical conditions and Popper’s ‘objective knowledge’ but also a universal, absolute understanding of what knowledge is; that education should instill knowledge; that social organization should promote education (not just the principles of equality and freedom); that history is a normatively meaningful competition between those people more successfully and those less successfully pursuing knowledge; and that, as Mill and Popper said, because societies should be organized to favor the former, freedom is an objectively important value.

Such ideas are all implied by the very epistemological pessimism of the GMWER, even while this pessimism simultaneously suggests that there is no knowledge of absolute, objective, universal norms of human action. Hence the key contradiction on which the GMWER is embarrassingly skewered: combination of the claim that there are no transhistorical norms with which to evaluate different historical societies and the unshakable belief not only that the GMWER produced a correct understanding of the limits of knowledge but also that the West, as the vehicle of the GMWER and the values it implies, is the world’s model civilization. Epitomized by J.S. Mill’s On Liberty, the contradiction many of us in the West have grown up with is between the belief that, because of human ‘fallibility’, any idea held to be true may be false and the belief that we who have this belief are more enlightened than those who lack it.

The varied Chinese epistemological arguments, I believe, are interesting for those worried by this contradiction. In my case at least, these Chinese views have suggested that, to avoid this contradiction, one must grant that there are transhistorical norms and then can view as ‘paradoxical’ the fact that cognitive access to them is combined with historically limited subjectivity. Hence my notions about the nature of ‘discourse’ as a phenomenon embodying this universal, indeed ontological paradox. Such a view of paradox as a primordial given, however, takes us close to the painfully vague idea, still common in China, that human reality is a ‘dialectical’ process.

In other words, the objectivity of norms and values remains elusive when they are regarded as object of knowledge but is clearer when it is inferred from the nature of knowledge itself. It may be impossible to derive this objectivity from some discursively known principle or consciousness transcending historical variations, but it does seem to be implied by an idea which exists as an unavoidable part of every discourse I am aware of – the idea that people can infallibly understand the absolute, universal nature, scope, and desirability of knowledge. Even Karl Popper’s discourse could not discard this idea. The GMWER shed great light on the fallibility of people trying to make absolutely true and objective statements about themselves and the world around them, and Chinese thinkers even today have still not taken its insights seriously enough. In effect, though, they have emphasized a point of which the GMWER lost sight: human fallibility has limits, and these limits have rich moral implications. If my argument is correct, then, the contemporary Chinese and Western philosophical worlds have much work to do criticizing each other. In this way, they can arrive at a new concept of knowledge, establish the objectivity of Wertrationalität (the rationality of ends), and so restructure the social process that transmits knowledge, education.

Chinese epistemological optimism, then, does challenge the admittedly vulnerable GMWER, complementing Western views challenging it, such as those of Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin. The need to address these challenges is clear simply from the standpoint of the mission of philosophy itself. Yet it is also clear from the standpoint of social criticism and that of international relations. I would argue that the health of a society depends on its educational system; that education is a process transmitting what is understood to be knowledge; and that the dubious definition of knowledge produced by the GMWER has not had a happy effect on Western education. Revising this definition thus might be desirable. At the same time, international efforts to deal with conflicting interests by peacefully discussing them may well be undermined by divergent outlooks on how to make reasonable statements based on knowledge. In fact, dangerous clashes between ideas about which data serve as ‘evidence’ indicating the existence of which pattern of historical causation have all along been basic to the development of U.S.-Chinese relations and still are.

© Professor Thomas A. Metzger 2000

Thomas Metzger is professor at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, California. He one of the West’s leading authorities on contemporary Chinese thought.

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