Monday, March 12, 2012

Hence I

Scott Bradley

Ames (Yuan Dao) observes that in classical Chinese writings "hence", "therefore", and other similar logical connectives serve more to introduce a new but parallel idea, rather than to establish a causal or logical link between ideas. This simple observation helps to free the Western reader of this literature from the trap of looking for the systematic, logical argumentation of Western philosophy where nothing of the sort was intended.

Munro (The Concept of Man in Early China) points out that, in traditional Chinese thought, "self-cultivation" (education) is conceived as a dialectic between self-introspection and emulation; one learns by comparing one's own behavior with the ideal, whether as evinced in the sage or in Dao. Therefore, when we see "therefore" we must remember what it is there for: An example having been provided, one acts accordingly. One responds in “resonation” to reality, not because of a logical conclusion.

In this sense, the reading of classical Chinese literature is itself a lesson in an alternative way of approaching reality. Its concern is not with truthful fact, but with behavior. As I like to say, one does not need to get it 'right' to get it. "What were important to the Chinese philosophers," writes Munro, "where questions of truth and falsity were not, were the behavioral implications of the statement or belief in question. In other words, the Chinese asked, 'What kind of behavior is likely to occur if a person adheres to this belief?'"

Munro does also call this lack of logical argumentation "regrettable", and to the extent that the human mind has the capacity for such an endeavor, perhaps it is. But in the larger context of the understanding that the "understanding consciousness" is never able to truly grasp the 'truth' of anything, it also serves to assist those bound by that form of consciousness to realize that larger context.

This might be demonstrated in a consideration of life. We may be able to explain a great deal about it, but in the end, it is a given which we can only accept and live. Unable to pronounce upon the 'meaning of life', we are, nonetheless, obliged to live it. For this reason, classical Chinese philosophy did not concern itself overmuch with attempting to explain it, but rather with how best to live it. It cared more for the 'how' of life than for the 'what' of life.

Our concern for 'truth' leads us to eschew 'untruth'. Thus, to the extent that we adopt paradigms descriptive of reality, we are careful to understand them as models only, not the 'truth'; to do otherwise would be to embrace 'untruth'. This seems a legitimate enough use of the discriminating mind which operates within the confines of reason, but there is more. And that 'more' is the understanding that life, as an example, is truth. But then truth takes on an altogether different meaning.

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1 comment:

  1. Goes a long way to explain the Chinese mindset, even today. It does tend to be practical and situational. This bridges Taoism and Confucianism, I think.


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