are comparative projects meaningful, or (cognitive) imperialism? I: Chinese philosophy (longish rant)

In his work The Ideology of Religious Studies (Oxford 2000), Timothy Fitzgerald uses the phrase “cognitive imperialism,” which he explains as “essentially an attempt to remake the world according to one’s own dominant ideological categories, not merely to understand but to force compliance” (p. 22). I think that we can take it as a given that nobody working in any of the comparative projects in the humanities, such as comparative philosophy and comparative religions, intends an imperialist project. (The scientific use of comparison, such as comparative anatomy, is sometimes used to justify use of comparison in the humanities. In the former, the objects of comparison have their own independent existence that constrains comparison in ways that social objects, intersubjective objects do not. Such uses are epistemologically distinct—a topic requiring separate consideration.)

Based on my experience with colleagues in the field, those engaged in humanistic comparative projects no doubt see themselves as preserving and contributing to the great tradition of liberal education—expanding students’ horizons, and increasing their sensitivity and appreciation for other peoples and their cultures, and generally making the world a better and more tolerant place. This has long been a rationale for comparative religions, as well as religious studies. This is evident for example in Huston Smith’s music appreciation analogy, one that upon reflection reveals the highly authoritarian nature of the project. It gives the instructor both authority over the material, represented as other peoples’ religions, a positive moral valence for teaching, and a position of authoritative judgement regarding students’ judgements.

Those working on the comparative projects know that they are good people with good intentions. (ouch, is that sarcasm I hear?) But this is exactly the problem—for example, the British Empire was in large part justified by well-intended people seeking to do good in the world. As my grandmother said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Raising the question of cognitive imperialism in the comparative projects of the humanities means, among other things and perhaps only as a starting point, critiquing category formation. In this instance, the category of “Chinese philosophy,” as found in Philip J. Ivanhoe and Bryan W. Van Norden, eds., Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy (2nd ed., Hackett, 2005).

Looking for any discussion of the categories deployed, that is both “Chinese” and “philosophy,” the closest we find is when in their introduction the editors say:

Even among the thinkers presented here, one finds a broad range of philosophical views. There are reflective defenders of tradition, ethical sensibility theorists, nature mystics, consequentialists, and egoists as well as those who present a purely political theory of state organization and control. One finds a variety of visions of the good life, ranging from those who insist that only the right kind of society presents human beings with a way to live complete and satisfying lives, to those who argue that any self-conscious attempt to produce a good life will inevitably be contaminated and undermined by such effort. (xvi)

I. Philosophy:

In other words, the editors naturalize the category “philosophy” by simply using it without explanation or justification. This is probably not an intentional strategy, but simply represents the received tradition regarding comparative philosophy. It does, however, avoid any necessity of justifying their usage, of answering the question “in what way do these selections fit into the category of philosophy?”

Philosophy is a wonderfully ambiguous term, allowing for at least three distinct usages. First is the modern academic discipline, with its established concerns, categories, and concepts. This is what one would expect to find upon opening works classed as “an introduction to philosophy.” Such topics as metaphysics and ontology, ethics and aesthetics, logic and critical reasoning would be discussed explicitly and systematically. Even though the organization is by author/text, explicit and systematic discussion of these kinds of topics is not what we find in Ivanhoe and Van Norden.

Looking to the paragraph quoted above, it seems that they are perhaps working closer to the second meaning of “philosophy,” the unsystematic and non-academic meaning. The kind of thing people mean when they talk about having a “philosophy of life,” or indeed when they talk about Buddhism being “a philosophy of life” (as distinct from what is meant when someone talks about “Buddhist philosophy”). Under this usage, “everyone is a philosopher” because they at one time or another think about such issues as What should I do now? The “vision of a good life” reduced to choosing between marrying Jen because she got pregnant or joining the Marines.

Aside: this usage is the kind of thing professionals sometimes get in the mail—a 387 p. typescript by someone totally untrained in philosophy who attempts to explain the secrets of life, or its meaning, or how to live it successfully. I once had the dubious honor of being asked by a colleague in the sociology department at a previous institution to review his religious philosophy of life, which he was writing up as a legacy for his children. This turned out to be a mix of New Age science of mind, devotional Catholicism, and faux yoga. It turned out, however, that he didn’t want actual feedback, just adulation.

The third usage is as a marker of civilized society. In this usage “having philosophy” is like “having religion,” which as David Chidester has shown in his Savage Systems (Univ. of Virginia, 1996) has significant political and juridical consequences. In the case of South Africa, the colonialist definition of “human” included “having religion.” When there was conflict between colonial and native peoples, suddenly in the languaging of the colonizer, the natives lacked religion, i.e., were not fully human.

This is the understanding that made a woman virulently angry at Frits Staal at a Buddhist–Christian dialogue conference in Hawai’i many years ago when he presented a paper arguing that the category religion with its monotheistic connotations does not apply to Buddhism. In her mind, it meant that he was saying that Buddhists were lesser, because in this sense not fully human. Philosophy as a marker of a civilized society works in much the same way. In this usage, to claim that a people have philosophy is part of a rhetorical strategy of claiming equality, just as to identify some set of beliefs as religion is.

Another personal aside: Meaning the first usage above—academic philosophy—I once casually wrote in an email that there was no philosophy in Japan prior to the modern era. That this was an impolitic thing to say was evident from the angry response I received from a scholar to whom the email had been forwarded without my knowledge. He seemed to think that I was prejudiced against Japanese peoples and viewed them as less than Europeans. This was, however, part of a larger and more complex argument about the integrity of intellectual systems, and the impropriety of selectively decontextualizing pieces of an intellectual system so as to make them fit into a different system, in this case that of Euro-American academic philosophy, the first meaning above.

The further difficulty is that, like “religion,” the imposition of “philosophy”—even when willingly embraced as evidence of equality—is part of the cognitive imperialism discussed by Fitzgerald. It seems evident that as Fitzgerald describes the category of religion, philosophy likewise is an ill-defined one.

II. Chinese:

The editors also seem to take the category of Chinese to be as unproblematic as the category philosophy. Why is this Chinese philosophy? The formulation itself presumes a continuity that legitimates contemporary nation-state claims of being a “natural” identity. Given the selection of writings, it might be more appropriate to call the collection “Zhou philosophy.” The alternative justification that can be imagined is that this is a linguistic category (itself one of those justifications for nation-state formation), but this is approximately as coherent as claiming that Seneca is part of Classical English philosophy. The oddity of this latter formulation should make the oddity of “Classical Chinese philosophy” evident.

It seems highly probable that the spoken language of Zhuangzi differs as much from modern spoken Chinese as does the Latin of Seneca from modern spoken English. An alternative claim regarding the unity of “Chinese” thought might then be made on the basis of the use of Chinese characters. Characters allowed for the communication of ideas across many different languages, both within the boundaries of modern China, but also as divergent as those of modern Taiwan, Vietnam, Korea and Japan. This would require a second step of argumentation, however, that being that use of the same writing system in some way imposed a somehow unified system of thought. Unfortunately, naturalization of the category “Chinese philosophy” means that the editors are free to simply use the category without seemingly reflecting on it, much less justifying it.

Critiques of category formation can, of course, be airily dismissed with a wave of the hand, a shrug of the shoulders, the claim that we all know one when we see one, and the derisive inquiry, Just what is wrong with you anyway? However, the perpetuation of such categories as “philosophy,” as for example one that includes Seneca, involve constructed histories that formulate an understanding of the world in a particular fashion and thereby allow claims of legitimacy and authority. For a long time, for example, the “history of philosophy” excluded Islamic thinkers, thereby tracing a lineage of authoritative legitimacy from the Greeks through Rome and medieval Europe up to Wittgenstein and Russell, and treated the value of Islam as limited to simply “preserving” Latin and Greek philosophy.

This kind of problem is aggravated by formulations such as the “Axial Age,” recently re-popularized by Robert Bellah. Karl Jaspers was attempting to formulate a new vision of an orderly world out of the ashes of WWII. But locating the Axial Age in Greece during the era of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, India during the era of the Buddha and the Upaniṣads, and China during the era of Confucius and Laozi is not in fact a liberal and inclusive vision, but one that systematically marginalizes everyone else.

Sometimes, comparative projects are justified on the grounds that they will benefit our own intellectual projects. This is sometimes the argument for the study of “Buddhist philosophy”—Western philosophy has so much to gain. But what makes our intellectual projects so important as to justify colonialist exploitation of other cultures? Perhaps we are all enriched by the presence of plurality? This is also offered as another argument for “preserving” the philosophy and religion of others—again for our own benefit, like museums and zoos.

One of the points that Fitzgerald makes is that cognitive imperialism  is not simply an intellectual project, but that identifying “religions” and “philosophies” is itself part of a long-standing imperialism as well. The delineation of a secular social and legal order as the putatively neutral ground upon which “religions” exist is part of creating attitudes about ownership of the otherwise unowned, such as land, air and water. Imposing such a system onto other peoples allows for the expropriation of their land, air and water as well.

This may seem a long way from “Chinese philosophy,” but questioning such categories is vital because they have political and juridical consequences. Those consequences are evident today in issues such as environmental racism (see here for example), when the land, air and water close to poor and minorities is deemed an appropriate location for the disposal of wastes or the construction of nuclear energy plants.

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