Sunday, January 12, 2014

128. Eastern and Western philosophy

Here I start a series on differences and similarities between Eastern and Western philosophy, and my position in that.

There is still a widespread inclination to think that there is an unbridgeable chasm between Eastern and Western philosophy. And a Western bias still is that the East can learn from the West, rather than vice versa, and indeed is doing so, as is exhibited in the spread of technology, capitalism and democracy. 

As a side comment, let me add that one can speak of such spread only when allowing for a variety of capitalisms and ‘democracies’. A number of self-proclaimed democracies are in fact vehicles for authoritarian rule (Russia, Turkey, Singapore, Malasia). However, Western smugness concerning the greater purity and merit of democracy in the West is partly the result of blindness to its own limitations. Capitalist market ideology is corrupting culture and institutions and removes control over the forces of globalized markets from the populace. The European Union is shaping a huge democratic deficit. 

Prior to the Enlightenment, Western philosophy was indeed different from Eastern philosophy on a number of fundamental points. However, particularly in the 18th century there was a large and widespread effect from Eastern on Western philosophy and culture. In philosophy there were effects on the thought of Malebranche, Leibnitz, Voltaire, Hume, Herder, Hegel, Schelling, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Jung and Heidegger. In some cases the effect was superficial (as in the Romantic philosophy following Herder, and in Nietzsche) or Eastern philosophy was used only to highlight or support one’s own ideas (Voltaire, Hegel, and again Nietzsche). In some cases, however, the effect was fundamental (Leibnitz, Hume, Schopenhauer, Jung).   

On a number of points my philosophy, as expounded in this blog, is more congenial with Eastern than with Western philosophy and on those points some of the Western philosophers that have inspired me are among those who were influenced by the East (e.g. David Hume and Heidegger).

Perhaps the most important and fundamental point concerns the pervasive role of change and variety, in denial of traditional notions from Western philosophy such as substance, absolute (unchanging) universals, God, and a unitary, stable self (individual identity).

Related to this, with much Eastern philosophy, and with Heidegger and American pragmatist philosophy, I share the idea of a unity between thinking and action: ideas develop as they are put in action.

In combination, this has brought me to pragmatism, the volatile self, the role of the other, and the notion of imperfection on the move. The underlying intuitions and ideas have developed in my career as an innovation scholar. They also loom large in Eastern philosophy.

With notable exceptions (e.g. Heraclitus), in early Western philosophy a static view of reality was taken, with substance as the carrier of properties and the basis for identity of the self. In a Platonic tradition, concepts were seen to entail universals, applying always and for ever.

Buddhism, by contrast, recognized no substance and saw reality not in terms of things but in terms of processes and impermanence. Buddhism is not concerned with a flight into the safety and stability of a metaphysical being, but faces the fragility and perishability of the human being, and of being in one’s body. It did not believe in a transcendent being as creator of the world. An advantage of that is that the problem of evil, the justice of God, in creating evil or allowing it to exist, disappears. Buddhism is not concerned with explaining sorrow but in overcoming it. Life is imperfection on the move. In Buddhist Nirwana there is peace, absorption in a state of non-becoming. However, it is not some place or heaven beyond life, but is to be achieved in this life. As such its transcendence is immanent, as I have also argued for. 

Hindu (Vedic) philosophy did entertain notions of an ultimate, transcendent, encompassing, indifferent identity or being, but is was hardly a God in any usual Western sense, and it was held to be ineffable, not accessible to human categories of thought and language. As such it was more akin to mystical Western traditions.

I will develop these and other themes in the following items of this series.

The main sources that I use in this series are the following

-          Cheng, Chung-Ying &Nicholas Brunnin (eds), 2002, Contemporary Chinese philosophy, Oxford: Blackwell
-          Coplestone, Frederick F., A history of philosophy,
-          Elders, Fons (ed.), 2000, Humanism and Buddhism (in Dutch), Brussels: VUB press.
-          Mcfie, Alexander Lyon (ed.), 2003, Eastern influences on Western philosophy, Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press.
-          Muller. John M. (ed.), 1963, Oriental philosophies, London: Macmillan.