12 June 2010

China symposium

Just came back from an academic symposium on Modern China up at Brown - it was enjoyable and actually quite informative, though I found I learned more about American cultural and academic perspectives than I did about modern China per se. I had to leave early, sad to say. It was still a good opportunity to acquaint myself with some of the problems and issues I'll be dealing with in graduate school.

I was most struck by the talk given on the influence of American pragmatic philosophy on modern China by Dr Chen Yajun. His approach was mostly comparative, though he dug pretty deep into the meta-level issues of how Chinese philosophers and political thinkers read pragmatism, and how they have tended to drift between two poles (associating it with a radical empiricist methodology on the one hand and epistemic subjectivism on the other). Dr Chen went into some detail about how a lot of the Chinese interpretation of pragmatism was linguistically-based, since many of the issues and concepts in Western thought which pragmatism criticises don't occupy the same space in Chinese thought. When a classical Chinese philosopher talks about 自然, for example, or 信, or 道, it would be rather naive to assume that he is defining the concepts in the same way as a modern Western-influenced philosopher who talks about 'nature' or 'truth' or 'reason'.

(A brief aside: in my view, the concepts of 自然 and 道 occupy a broad space in Chinese philosophy which covers the space occupied in Western philosophy by both the concepts of subjective / existential 'authenticity' and 'nature' in the post-Enlightenment sense, in addition to a moral law when the same concepts are used by Confucians. This is what irks me most about ersatz pop-philosophers like Alan Watts and ideologues like Friedrich Hayek when they try to read Laozi or Zhuangzi - they apply either a vapid or a bigoted and ideological hermeneutic to the original texts, which destroys the meaning such that they can twist it to their own political ends.)

The response, by Dr Paget Henry of the sociology department, was even more enlightening about the history of American philosophy and pragmatism's place in that narrative. Dr Henry, though he was impressed by Dr Chen's writing, felt that an accounting of pragmatism's influence was incomplete without an accounting of the dialogue within American philosophy which brought it about. Firstly, Dr Henry's argument went, pragmatism arose as a response to scientific positivism, which claimed that verifying or falsifying hypotheses about the natural world was simply a matter of designing the right experiment to test the hypothesis. Pragmatism countered this claim by positing that a community of interpreters was required to make any useful sense of the data - thus, the conduct of scientific inquiry is governed not only by a purely constative methodology but also a set of professional ethics and norms.

The second major point that Dr Henry brought up was that pragmatism arose as a response to a dialogue which was already going on within American philosophy, between the 'canonical' political theorists of American history (Jonathan Edwards, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson and so forth) and the unsung African American voices who have contributed heavily to the dialogue on political theory, critiquing and shaping American political thought as much as their white counterparts did (Lemuel Haynes, Frederick Douglass, Martin Garvey, all the way up to Cornel West). The view of the traditional pragmatists toward its African-American interlocutors was more or less imperialistic, and the relation of the work of pragmatists like John Dewey to Chinese philosophy would be better understood, Dr Henry argued, in this context: there was an element to Dewey's work in China which was monological rather than dialogical. Dewey expected to fix problems in China without noticeably believing that China had anything to offer in return.

It wasn't an aspect of philosophy I expected to encounter at this symposium, but I'm grateful I went, certainly. Something to think about, pray about and be affected by, as I prepare myself to learn how to go off into the world and fix problems.

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