Reply to Steven Burik
Important objections are raised by Steven Burik in his comment on Rui Zhu's response to Rorty and MacIntyre. We will try to address them without proceeding in an eristic, point-by-point manner. In general, it seems that at least some of Burik's objections are based on his misreading of Zhu's response. Burik is not to blame, however. Zhu's response was short and many of the points made there were not sufficiently explained or developed. By way of his generous commentary Burik has provided us a much needed opportunity to offer some remedies.
A key distinction in Zhu's response was its reference to comparative philosophy as a form of intercultural studies and as philosophy. The former compares philosophies and the latter does philosophy. It goes without saying that the two are difficult to separate. Nevertheless, the distinction is real and can be felt by any comparative philosopher through the tension between scholarly expositions and creative philosophizing. In this reply to Burik we will recalibrate the distinction in terms of that between understanding and thinking, even though the profile drawn here might be a bit too sharp for our comfort. But such is the risk we have to bear for the sake of heuristics.
As said, the distinction will be recalibrated here as that between understanding and thinking. It seems to us that a lot of works in comparative philosophy, including Zhu's, have fallen into the trap of the well-intentioned desire to seek understanding and dialogue across different philosophical traditions. What is sacrificed as a result is the boldness to think and philosophize.
Understanding is a hermeneutic enterprise that requires an interpreter, a person more properly called an "understander," as far as comparative philosophy is concerned. The understander must suspend her own cultural standards and listen to what the other culture has to say on a subject matter. In understanding the other, one must embed oneself in the narrative tradition(s) of the other and employ the standards and logic informed by the other in judging issues that are otherwise differently judged by one's own culture. One key hermeneutic virtue lies in the understander's sensibility and respect toward the other culture premised upon her rejecting any essentialist, absolutist, or universalist attitude sanctioned by her own consciousness. An understander, [End Page 271] in a word, must be vigilant against her own parochialism and cultural imperialism. Any idea or concept, however tempting it might be, may not be siphoned off from its own context and treated as ready to use, to be assimilated or assailed. Tradition, in other words, constitutes the premise of understanding—one cannot truly understand a thing if the tradition whence the thing has emerged is ignored. In this sense, all hermeneutic enterprises have a conservative core—it limits the possibility of a word, utterance, or proposition to possess meaning outside its context.
Thinking, on the other hand, is necessarily iconoclastic, despite its link to understanding. A thinker, no matter how well she understands and how much respect she holds with regard to a tradition, must seek to break free from it. She is wary of traditions exactly because they are traditions, due to their powerful hold on human consciousness and the essentialist, absolutist ideologies they tend to foster. Certainly, such a task of self-liberation is difficult. It may even be impossible. If it is impossible, however, the impossibility shall not constitute the impossibility of thinking per se. At its worst, a thinker would be a Sisyphean figure chained to an impossible task, trying to un-think something that has enabled her to think in the first place.
In contrast to an understander, a thinker's business is not to understand the other, or even one's self through the other, but to address some of the inevitably essentialist questions that have emerged through the evolution of human consciousness, questions such as "What is the ultimate truth?" and "Is there a God?" and "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Such questions are expressed in different languages, dressed in different concepts and ideas, but are universal. Many such questions are inevitably essentialist because there is a human wish to be in touch with something certain, eternal, and transcendental, a wish perhaps rooted in our desire to escape death. In any case, it is not up to a thinker to decide if such questions are meaningful, real, or worth thinking about. They just call for thinking, and our choice lies only in our decision whether or not to respond to the call. One can reject them as fallacious, unreal, and meaningless. If one wants to respond to the call, however, she has to tackle the daunting task of trying to transcend the horizon of one's consciousness and glimpse into the abyss outside to see if there is anything truly universal and absolute.
The task of thinking, in this sense, would be partly the task of appropriation. A thinker is like a thief who suffers from kleptomania and steals whatever is valuable from any house of tradition, in order to help her transcend the tradition that has defined herself. She is eager to learn from and understand the other because she knows that the best cure of a tradition is another tradition. But in the end she is not concerned about doing justice to the other. Nor is she overly burdened by the worry that her understanding of the other might be illegitimate or incorrect. For her, correct understanding is a valuable guide for her "stealing" but not much more. A thinker, in other words, must overcome the respect she may hold for a tradition. She has to distance herself from all traditions in order to use them for her own purpose. She is not an imperialist, an urbane culturalist, or a sentimentalist, but like a thief.
With the distinction now recalibrated, we are now in a position to address Burik's concerns. Burik thinks that Zhu has taken too seriously MacIntyre's thesis on cultural incommensurability and failed to pay attention to his critics. The problem [End Page 272] from our point of view is this: regardless of the merit of MacIntyre's position, the issue of (in)commensurability constitutes an empirical matter and is not crucial to comparative philosophy as philosophy. The recent (in)commensuralibility debate within the circle of comparative philosophy is mostly, in fact, beside the point.
Commensurability studies, ably spearheaded by Ruth Chang, is a branch of axiology and has to do with practical reason. When a pair of values from two different cultures are found incomparable, it would be impossible to weigh them on the scale of "better than, worse than, equal to, or on a par with," to follow Chang's language.1 The important point is that incommensurability does not constitute, in and of itself, any serious obstacle to understanding or thinking. With sufficient hermeneutic resources at hand, nothing in principle would prevent a person from understanding or thinking about the other tradition, no matter how incommensurable it may be with one's own. Incommensurability constitutes a challenge for choosing (between options) and translation (between texts). But neither choosing nor translation belongs to the proper purview of comparative philosophy.
From the perspective of thinking, incommensurability is in fact good news. An incommensurable other would mount an effective challenge against our own essentialist tendencies and force us to think harder and better.2 When confronted with a foreign tradition, we would be better off by assuming its incommensurability, in order to avoid misconstruing it. In other words, as an understander or thinker, one ought to overestimate the incommensurability between sufficiently different cultures, at least at the get-go. Such overestimation functions as a methodological prudence. For an understander, the discovery of commensurability may in the end be good news. For a thinker, however, such commensurability would dramatically diminish the fruitfulness of appropriation.
On a related front, Burik objects to Zhu's defense of the "priestly consciousness" and accuses him of failing to appreciate the recent advancements in comparative philosophy due to the contributions from many non-"philosophers."
The "ascetic priest" image of a philosopher, employed derogatively by Rorty, refers to the two character types embodied in such a person: (a) someone who is distanced from the ordinary lifeworld and (b) someone who seeks some transcendental truths and rationality. The posture of distancing is in our view absolutely necessary to any serious thinking. As an "ascetic priest," a thinker must be more or less protected from the ordinary lifeworld so as not to constantly affirm through her living, via her words and deeds, any given tradition. The function of the ordinary lifeworld as tradition-affirming tends to silence and displace in various degrees the perennial human yearning for higher answers. Furthermore, a thinker must disrespect a tradition just because it is a tradition. She dares to take on some fundamental questions that concern a human being, not just a Westerner or Easterner.
Contrary to what is often alleged, the essentialist inquiries that characterize the "priestly consciousness" are far from being the sole product of a predominantly Western metaphysics. All thinkers from East and West have to deal with these questions. The much touted linguistic evidence based on the lack of certain words and concepts in the Chinese or other non-European languages is an uninteresting factoid, [End Page 273] even from the pure linguistic standpoint. The overestimation of such evidence is in our view indicative of a kind of linguistic essentialism on the part of those who tend to fetishize some exotic languages and ignore the well-recognized relative unimportance of natural languages to human thinking.
By "linguistic essentialism" we mean two things: (a) that natural languages can have a decisive influence on the essentialist or non-essentialist mode of thinking, and (b) that since the Chinese language is non-phonetic, the Chinese mind has largely escaped from the typical essentialist fallacies found in the Western metaphysical tradition (—logocentrism is another matter and needs to be kept separate). Given our shared, evolutionarily sculpted cognitive architecture in our brain, it is part of our common human destiny, in our view, to reify all kinds of words and concepts. Given the grip of death on our consciousness, it is also part of our destiny to search for something higher, essential, and transcendental. Essentialist thought is pervasive in the Chinese tradition, despite the fact that the Chinese language tends to be vague, contextual, and polysemous.
In fact, it is not necessary for us to dive deep into evolutionary psychology in order to appreciate the common tendency for essentialism. The whole philosophical enterprise of Daoism and Zen Buddhism is devoted to combating such a tendency. If the polysemous and contextual nature of the Chinese language has immunized the Chinese mind against essentialism, as is often alleged, why do we have Daoism and Zen in the first place? Wouldn't the Daoist cry against the absolutist "right" and "wrong," "yes" and "no," "this" and "that" be much ado about nothing? That Daoism is an important philosophy proves the very existence of the essentialist tendency in the Chinese consciousness.
In our view, what separates East and West is not the contrast between Western metaphysical thinking and Eastern process thinking. What distinguishes the West is the rather remarkable domination of the essentialist tradition throughout much of its history—a feat that bespeaks the power of Plato and Christianity. By contrast, essentialist thinking has been vigorously challenged in the East by Daoism from early on.
Nevertheless, a Daoist philosopher like Lao Zi, Zhuang Zi, or the "T'zu-ch'i of South Wall" should be through and through an "ascetic priest" (T'zu-ch'i is described as zombie-like).3 Such essentialist questions as "What is the ultimate Dao and Order?" constitute the very fodder and "call" for human thinking. The effort of Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi, by way of their combating essentialism, evidences their "priestly" status. In other words, it would take an "essentialist" thinker to combat essentialism. Similarly, one cannot be a true atheist without thinking religiously, without trying to get in touch with God.
Henceforth, there is no so-called Western or Eastern philosophy. There are only the Western and Eastern philosophical traditions. It is an understander's task to interpret them as faithfully as one can. As a thinker, however, one has to distance oneself from all such traditions in order to reach the ceiling of one's own horizon. For a thinker, her business is not to fuse horizons but to see their shapes and contours and try to puncture them, even if that is impossible. A fused horizon is still a horizon, larger though it may be, certainly more difficult to see and break. The value of comparative [End Page 274] philosophy lies exactly, in our view, in the usefulness of the other, looming large over the horizon, in helping us see the horizon and where we are as a sailor.
Contrary to Burik, we believe that the true purpose of comparative philosophy is not to strike a dialogue with the other. Important as it is to thinking, understanding is only a preparation that must be overcome in the end by a philosopher. If Daoism can be of use to a "priestly consciousness," there is no absolute need for her to try to understand Confucianism. One can engage Daoism based on her needs and its perceived merit, while aware of the difficulty in understanding it without understanding its philosophical foil.
Burik accuses Zhu of painting, by following MacIntrye, an overly pessimistic and simplistic picture concerning the "fusion of horizons." Besides what has been said above concerning the "breaking of horizons," we would like to explain why MacIntyre is more correct than Rorty when it comes to fusion per se. When two cultures meet, as long as they are not sufficiently commensurable, there is necessarily at some point a rejection of one or the other by their respective adherents, even if they understand or even respect each other.
Understanding is compatible with rejection, because understanding belongs to hermeneutics and rejection to life itself. A modern Greek expert can understand the ancient Greek culture, or an American expert on Daoism can understand Daoism, certainly better than most of the ancient Greeks and Chinese themselves. (On this point, contrary to Burik's assumption, Zhu's position is the exact opposite of his.) In general, a foreign expert on a local culture can tell more about the local culture than most of the locals themselves. There is nothing abnormal in such imbalance because that is how expertise separates people. It would be naive to assume that since I am Chinese and a practitioner of the Chinese culture, I have some inherent advantage over a foreigner when it comes to understanding Chinese culture. Humans can live forever on earth and would still have no idea about gravity if not for an odd fellow like Newton, who came along and told us about it. Cultural traditions, somewhat like gravity, ground us without our knowledge. It would take an expert to tell us about them.
Expertise notwithstanding, a foreign expert is, on the other hand, often just an expert. It is perfectly normal for a bona fide philhellene to live as a Christian, and an American Daoist expert to live as a consumerist. A professed lover of Socrates usually does not go about soliciting erotic attention from the young boys on the street. In other words, despite one's appreciation of the other, an understander often in the end rejects the other tradition—in deeds, if not in words. When it comes to living in the lifeworld, a respectful understander of the other usually, if not always, embraces one's own reason and logic as the reason and logic. That is what MacIntyre means when he says, when two incommensurable traditions meet, that there would be an inevitable rivalry and that "the adherents of each standpoint," even if "they can now in some sense understand what it is that they reject," "must reject it," "for what is now presented to them within the framework of their own standpoint as an alternative to their own theorizing on some particular subject matter will inescapably be judged false by the standards informing that framework."4 [End Page 275]
In a word, rejection does not mean disrespect or understanding conversion. MacIntyre's insight on the hard hermeneutic struggle between the adherents of different traditions is profoundly justified, contrary to Rorty and Burik's optimism.
Unlike the understander, however, a thinker does not have the luxury of gentle appreciation from a distance. She must appropriate and put to use things she finds valuable. Be it a value from Greek culture or Daoism, she must live according to it, partly to facilitate her break away from her own tradition. She must regard the value from the other culture as applicable to her. Thinking is thus paradoxically deeply connected to living, despite the priestly distancing. One is not a thinker unless her thinking fundamentally changes her and the way she lives, thus separating her from the rest of humanity.
We have gone a greater length than we intended and hope that Burik can understand why Zhu said that comparative philosophy, qua philosophy, is better done by a specialist of a foreign culture. For a foreign specialist has three advantages: (a) there is a natural distance in her from all traditions, her own and the other's; (b) the foreign specialist can appreciate better, due to her familiarity with the other, the essentialist reasoning sanctioned by her own cultural consciousness; and (c) such a foreign specialist, sufficiently distanced from all live traditions, shall be at a unique advantage to address some of the essentialist questions that plague human consciousness—"Is there an ultimate truth on everything or anything?" for instance.
In brief, comparative philosophy, in our view, is best conducted by a specialist of a foreign culture who not infrequently casts a backward glance at one's own culture. She uses the other, not to understand the other or herself, but to burst her horizon. That is what Zhu meant by the "object-centered self-reflection." What would be the true center of such reflection, Burik asks? The center of her reflection is the very consciousness of her own, which is also ours.
1. See Ruth Chang, "Value Incomparability and Incommensurability," in The Oxford Handbook of Value Theory, ed. Iwao Hirose and Jonas Olsen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 205–224.
2. See Rui Zhu, "Commensurability and the Inside Irony" (manuscript, 2017).
3. Burton Watson, Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), p. 31.
4. Alasdair MacIntyre, "Incommensurability, Truth, and the Conversation between Confucians and Aristotelians about the Virtues," in Culture and Modernity: East-West Philosophical Perspectives, ed. Eliot Deutsch (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1991), p. 112. [End Page 276]